May 31, 2007

Something fishy in Maguindanao

The alleged “12-0” sweep of the senatorial elections by the administration-backed Team Unity (TU) versus the Genuine Opposition (GO) in the province of Maguindanao and the reported widespread and wholesale fraud in Lanao del Sur, another province that is part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), has drawn national attention to these provinces. As in the 2004 presidential elections, polling results in these far-flung areas appear to be crucial in the nation-wide “dagdag-bawas” (vote padding-shaving) scheme intended to bring about victory for senatorial and party-list candidates backed by the Arroyo administration.

The pro-administration Maguindanao governor cum feudal warlord, Andal Ampatuan Sr., attributes the incredible “12-0” TU victory to the traditional practices of the Moro people for selecting leaders which involve ijima (consensus) and shura (consultation). He claims that these traditional practices are the equivalent of the “command votes” by other religious groups such as the Iglesia ni Kristo, wherein voters obediently but voluntarily choose the candidates that have been endorsed by their religious as well as political leaders.

A full-page ad placement in a broadsheet accused those who charged massive cheating, if not a complete failure of elections in Maguindanao province, as engaging in age-old discrimination against Muslims in Mindanao. Thousands of teachers were reported to be protesting in the same province against what they claimed were baseless accusations and affirming that free and honest elections had indeed taken place.

Certainly one may expect less than ideal conditions for the free exercise of the individual right to suffrage in an area where political power is monopolized by a feudal warlord whose clan has consolidated its economic, political and even religio-cultural hold on a wide swathe of territory and a voting population of around 300,000. But the gross and highly unbelievable “12-0” TU win handed on a silver platter by Mr. Ampatuan to Mrs. Arroyo’s anointed candidates and which the Comelec is poised to accept and proclaim as valid, reeks of manipulation and cheating at the highest levels.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos concedes that elections in ARMM have historically been difficult because of the intensity of the rivalry among local candidates and their followers but he sees no reason to suspect any serious anomalies that would mar the outcome. He even threatens those raising doubts about the integrity of the Maguindanao polls with sanctions unless they come up with the “evidence”.

In truth, disturbing testimonies have come out that should spur the Comelec to action. For example, according to four election inspectors presented by the opposition as witnesses, more than 100 election inspectors were forcibly taken and detained, for three nights and two days, and made to manufacture votes for a local mayoralty candidate and the administration senatorial bets. A BEI member, in his sworn statement, said that the authorized Comelec official had yet to collect the election returns (ERs) and 38 ballot boxes from Pagalungan, Maguindanao. According to him, the 190 uncanvassed ERs contained all the votes in eight of 12 barangays in the said municipality.

Moreover, volunteers of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), the sole Comelec-accredited citizens arms authorized to receive official copies of ERs, were completely shut out of the electoral process so that they were unable to retrieve copies neither of the ERs nor of Certificates of Canvass (COCs). In brief, outside of Governor Ampatuan and his loyal retinue, no independent group could vouch that elections reflective of the will of the electorate had indeed taken place in Maguindanao.

In what would be a funny feature of the purported “12-0” administration win in Maguindanao, apparently some of the cheaters doing the actual dirty job of fixing the fraudulent results, misunderstood the battle cry for a “12-0” victory to mean that GO senatorial candidates would literally get zero votes in the province – both a statistical and a political improbability, if not impossibility.

Meanwhile, almost all election watchdogs have declared without exception that elections in Lanao del Sur were characterized by a thousand and one anomalies and illegal practices from rampant vote buying to ballot manufacturing to plain dishonest counting and canvassing of votes that violated the sanctity of the ballot and irreparably damaged the integrity of the polling results. Not even the presence of an unusual number of reporters from the mass media as well as election watchdog bodies could prevent the massive fraud.

Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs in so far as elections in Muslim Mindanao?

The responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the Abalos Comelec and the Arroyo administration. What has been exposed as a parody of elections in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and other provinces of the ARMM is in fact nothing new. This is what already transpired in 2004 and has been the way elections have been conducted for the longest time in these provinces. The Manila government has not lifted a finger because such conditions are conducive for vote manipulation in favor of whoever has the preponderance of resources and wields state power; in this instance, clearly the Arroyo-administration and its TU candidates.

While it would be very difficult at this point for the Arroyo regime to utilize the tainted election results in ARMM to reverse the opposition’s lead in the senatorial race, there is still the danger that GO candidates Cayetano, Trillanes and Pimentel will be bumped off by TU candidates Zubiri, Recto and Pichay. (Defensor has already conceded defeat). In which case, the “dagdag-bawas” mafia operating in Muslim Mindanao will again have proven its formidable clout.###


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