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Philippine Senator Resigns Seat in Election Controversy with Deep Roots

August 10, 2011

On August 3, in a nationally televised speech, Senator Juan Miguel “Migs” Zubiri resigned his seat in the upper house of the Philippine Congress. While he stated emphatically that he did not cheat, or ask anybody else to cheat, when he ran in the 2007 election, Zubiri said that rising speculation and publicity about fraud, new witnesses going public, and an ongoing process at the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) were taking a toll on his family. To spare them more trauma, he submitted his resignation and subsequently withdrew all his motions before the SET, allowing the panel to move forward speedily toward proclaiming the other disputant, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, III, as the winner.

This is the first time in Philippine history a senator has resigned over an election protest. The Philippines has had elections – and charges of electoral misconduct – at various levels since the late 19th century, so it is hard to know how far back to trace the roots of this problem. However, some coherence is reached by going back 16 years to 1995, when Koko Pimentel’s father, Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel II, also charged that he was cheated.

The year of 1995 saw the first scandal to dent confidence in the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), in the post-Marcos, post-1986 People Power Revolution era. Senators in the Philippines are elected nationwide, with 12 seats being filled every three years for six-year terms to the 24-seat body. Often, very few votes separate the last several seats, and in 1995 Nene Pimentel (who had been senator from 1986 to 1992) charged that he was edged out by a system of dagdag-bawas (add-subtract) during canvassing of votes. The system was to deduct votes from one candidate in election returns and add them to another so that overall totals remain the same. Pimentel launched an electoral protest, but it dragged on (as such protests typically do) and became moot when he ran and won in 1998. The case faded from the news and COMELEC began to regain its credibility.

However, early in 2004, then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed Garcillano as commissioner of the COMELEC. Nene Pimentel protested that Garcillano had been COMELEC regional director in northern Mindanao when dagdag-bawas occurred, but to no avail. Garcillano helped preside over the general elections of May 2004, and became truly notorious when in mid-2005 the “hello Garci” tapes surfaced. These are taped mobile phone conversations, including between Garcillano and somebody whose voice certainly resembles Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s. These tapes – why they were made, and why they were made public, has always remained murky – quickly went viral. Mobile phone ringtones were made, set to all kinds of music, so that all over the country people heard a female voice saying “Hello, Garci?” and going on to discuss election matters. A political crisis ensued, 10 cabinet members resigned in July, President Arroyo apologized without admitting the actual phone calls, and she remained in office until the end of her constitutionally mandated term in June 2010.

In the meantime, there were the mid-term elections of 2007. The senatorial slate of the unpopular administration fared badly:  of the 12 winners proclaimed, seven were from the “Genuine Opposition,” two were independents, and only three were from the president’s “Team Unity” slate. The 12th slot, with about a 20,000 vote margin, was taken by Arroyo supporter Migs Zubiri over oppositionist Koko Pimentel.

This margin of victory appeared at the last moment, relying on the vote tallies in the province of Maguindanao. Provincial results showed a 12-0 outcome for “Team Unity” after a train of events had the Commission on Election’s provincial election supervisor saying that the municipal returns (on which provincial results are based) had been stolen, and then that they had merely gone missing and had been found. The provincial results were duly counted, and had a margin of over 120,000 votes for Zubiri over Pimentel, enough to allow Zubiri (over protests that continue) to claim the twelfth slot. The provincial election supervisor was Lintang Bedol, who had cropped up often in the “Hello Garci” tapes as helping Commissioner Garcillano in his activities in Mindanao. Bedol, who had been in hiding for four years, surfaced in July to submit statements detailing the cheating in this election, and other election workers substantiated his claims. It is in this context that Senator Zubiri announced his resignation.

So, a continuous chain led from the 1995 senatorial election to 2004 presidential election, to the 2007 senatorial election. As I have written in this blog, this chain seems to have been broken by the May 2010 automated elections, where fast electronic transmission of results from the precinct level prevented manipulation of the canvassing such as dagdag-bawas or physical switching of returns. The COMELEC vows that these manipulations will not recur – though problems of individual buying of votes or election violence are not solved by automation. In the Philippines, elections have changed but so far politics have not.  After all, Koko Pimentel is the son of a former senator, showing the continuing power of family ties.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and the author of “Elections as Complicated and Important Events in the Philippines” in John Fuh-Sheng Hsieh and David Newman (eds) How Asia Votes (New York:  Seven Bridges Press, 2002). He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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