In The News

Philippine Election Update: Results Reported in Record Time, Largely Peaceful, Now What?

May 12, 2010

The fact that an In Asia blog piece was scheduled to appear just two days after polls closed for the May 10 general elections in the Philippines was enough to cause anxiety for this writer. In the past, it was literally weeks before results of manual counting of handwritten ballots would produce results. This time, though, two days is enough to analyze results and winners – to everybody’s surprise.

Philippine election banners

Campaign banners fill the streets on election day.

Election day headlines reflected reports about problems in the automation, adding “glitches” to the alliterative litany of Philippine election problems:  guns, goons, and gold. However, in the end, less than 500 of the more than 76,000 Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines failed – to be quickly replaced from the stock of substitutes. Electronic transmission of results at the end of the day could also be slow in some places – at Tetuan Elementary School in Zamboanga City, it took 90 minutes for the first precinct to transmit its results (though subsequent transmissions went more quickly). But suddenly, by 3 a.m., national networks were announcing that several local races had already been declared.

The story quickly shifted to this astonishing rapidity. Given the large lead in pre-election polls for presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino, with early voting results confirming the pre-election survey findings, it quickly became clear that he would defeat former President Joseph Estrada (in 2nd place) and Senator Manny Villar (in 3rd). The vice-presidential race is much tighter, with Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay (Estrada’s running mate) surging past Mar Roxas (Noynoy’s running mate) to lead by almost 800,000 votes, with 89 percent of precincts reporting at time of writing. Even the Senate races, where 12 candidates are elected nationwide with smaller margins separating those further down the list, look likely to be decided by the time the week is out.

Philippine elections

Voters insert their ballots into the PCOS scanners during the first automated elections in the Philippines.

In the early afternoon of Tuesday – less than 24 hours after polls closed – yet another surprise was in store. Manny Villar conceded “…in order to honor the voice of the Filipino citizenry. I congratulate Senator Noynoy Aquino on his victory.”  Nobody could ever remember such a thing since “in the Philippines, there are no losers in elections” and concession speeches are unknown. (Historian Manolo Quezon helpfully points out that in fact, Philippine Independent Church founder Gregorio Aglipay did concede when he lost to Manolo’s grandfather, Manuel Luis Quezon, in 1935!)  Miriam Defensor Santiago, handily re-elected Senator on May 10, still refuses to concede to Fidel Ramos, who beat her for the presidency back in 1992.

Many candidates, both national and local, followed the historic example of Senator Villar in conceding – though naturally not all. Former President Estrada, some five million votes behind, refuses, saying that only Congress can proclaim the winner of a presidential election. The American equivalent would be a refusal to concede until the Electoral College has officially cast its votes for president.

As often happens, election failures occurred in some towns in the southern island of Mindanao but the elections were, by Philippine standards, peaceful, despite some high-profile violence on election day (even near Manila) and after. Filipinos, and their international friends, breathed a huge sigh of relief this week. Many issued dire warnings even on polling day itself about the possible failure of elections – and some are now saying they are glad they were wrong.

So, there are many things that changed in the past week – but many things that did not. Beginning with the electoral process – the slow manual checking of voters as they entered the precincts created long lines, particularly since several precincts were clustered into larger ones to feed into one PCOS machine. And the list of registered voters was the same, with only one half having the new biometric registration to prevent multiple registrations and “flying voters.”

Of greater concern is what the incoming administration will now face. It promises to be a rough transition from the old to the new administration, particularly as Noynoy has promised investigation into many scandals, including the “Hello Garci” imbroglio regarding alleged cheating by President Arroyo in the 2004 elections.  President Arroyo has certainly not been sitting on her hands in the interim, naming (to considerable controversy) a new chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Even as Aquino lamented that the chief justice appointment would just add “another problem” for a new administration to face, any incoming administration certainly confronts a litany of challenges. Policy direction is not one of the strong outcomes of Philippine elections, to say the least. For instance, a pair of issue-based debates among 22 senatorial candidates led to very interesting exchanges, but only three of those are in the top 12 vote getters likely to get elected – and those three are from political families: Pia Cayetano (daughter and sister of senators), Gwen Pimentel (daughter of a senator, whose brother narrowly lost for Senate in 2007), and Teofisto Guingona III (son and grandson of senators).

So, in a sense, the president is free to chart a course since voters did not give clear-cut policy direction. Noynoy does have a platform (though his official site is down apparently due to the fact that it was a campaign site, and there will be a transition to a presidential site) and considerable reading of tea leaves is now ongoing – both on the  economy and on other issues. Only one cabinet appointment has been thus far announced, so there is much still to learn about how the new president will face his challenges.

At least this time, new officials at least this time have the certainty of results and the luxury of time to prepare to take office on July 1. In the meantime, the Philippines can bask in the glow of a successful election – and get some rest from the excitement of the last few days.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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