Philippines: Asian observers says election plagued with problems and an environment marred by intimidation, threats, violence

May. 16, 2007

Preliminary Statement of Asian Foreign Election Observers on the Mission in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

COTABATO CITY — The twenty one observers from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) have completed their election observation mission and study of the Philippines electoral system and process. Observers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand spent eight days observing the pre-election situation and Election Day throughout the six provinces of the ARMM, visiting more than 500 precincts. We observed the preparations for the elections at the local level, and the situation before election day by interviewing candidates, election and other government officials, nongovernment organizations, and citizens. We then observed election day, up to the counting of ballots.

The observers would like to thank the COMELEC for accreditation and the Filipino people for their warm hospitality from both ordinary citizens and civil society organizations. We very much admire the hard work of the poll officers at all polling stations, who worked from the evening before the polling day, until late on the night of the Elections Day. Filipinos were seen as very devoted to the process of election, and in particular we were happy to see women participating in all aspects of the electoral process, including as voters, poll workers and candidates. We, along with the Filipino people, hope to see peaceful outcome for the post election period.

Observations included some localities where Election Day was properly conducted by all stakeholders, upholding law and order, freedom of expression, and freedom of choice. Observers appreciated the good media cooperation and coverage about electoral information. Unfortunately, election day in other localities in the ARMM was not peaceful and orderly.

Despite the enthusiasm and determination of voters to choose their government, the active support of Muslim and Christian leaders, and the best efforts of most COMELEC officials and teacher/poll workers, ANFREL observed an election day process plagued with problems, and an environment marred by intimidation, threats and violence. The low quality of elections in the ARMM, the general impression that the process is manipulated by outsiders, and the culture of impunity for election and political crime, can fuel calls for alternative government that can provide justice for the people.

ANFREL still would like to see significant reform in the election process and the legal and political environment to ensure the establishment of free and fair elections in the future. ANFREL takes the opportunity to point out some aspects for further consideration and discussion in the Philippines and among the other Asian democratic countries.

Voter Registration

It is encouraging that lists of registered voters are now electronically available. But, to ensure that voters know where their precinct is, and so that cross-checking is possible (particularly with the lists posted in precincts), they need to be made available earlier.

Voter Education

Compared to other Asian countries, there was very little voter education in the ARMM. In the future, COMELEC should develop a comprehensive program to inform the people of the election process, and their rights and duties in a democracy. Given the significant influence of clan politics and violence in the election process, ANFREL suggests that civil society organizations should also be deeply involved in long-term and intensive civic education campaigns.

Campaign Process

To create a fair competitive environment for all candidates, it is important to enforce the law and to punish those government officials who use government facilities, vehicles and staff to support the campaigns of incumbent candidates or parties. Ending impunity for election offenses would yield the single biggest improvement in democracy and the election process.

Since in political campaigns there is always risk of conflict and violence, candidates and parties should not involve children for political activities, even though they may like to voluntarily join the campaigns or they were hired. The Philippines has acceded (in 1990) to the Child Rights Convention and thus all political parties have obligations to protect the rights of the child.

All candidates should respect the election law by not campaigning on the day before and polling day. The COMELEC should not allow poll watchers, voters and members of the parties to distribute campaign fliers for specific candidates inside or outside the precincts on election day.

Violence and Intimidation

ANFREL calls on all stakeholders in the ARMM and all over the country to stop using violence to undermine the democratic process or gain their votes. For the sake of peace and genuine democracy, those who utilize all kind of weapons in the ARMM must be ended.

The supporters, poll watchers, members and party agents should not assist the candidates with unethical means, i.e., intimidation, harassment, discrimination, revenge etc.

All candidates should perform their potential leadership with passion and ability to unite the country; they should not win the election by creating more conflict and hate.

COMELEC, BEIs and the Polling Problems.

There should not be any exception in COMELECs exercising their power on election administration and implementation of the electoral law. COMELEC in all levels must perform their work effectively and transparently so that no candidate or party will be able to influence the Commission and its officers.

Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) should implement their role and authority to fulfill the work during election process and canvassing. Both COMELEC and BEIs who cooperate with the candidates and poll watchers to manipulate the voting and results must be punished and dismissed from their work. All BEIs must follow the law and electoral process seriously.

There should be a consistent policy for the poll setting, polling and canvassing. The COMELEC must give the same instructions to electoral officers and BEIs.

Poll watchers should not be allowed to assist or intervene in the activities of voters during the election time. The number of members on a BEI could be increased to more than three persons if it is not compatible to the amount of work on the election day, so they will not ask for assistance from the poll watchers.

To make the voting process run in an orderly way, all voters should form a queue, and voters should not be assisted to vote except for illiterate and disabled voters.

In urban areas, polling centers can be very crowded and chaotic, and the grouping of many precincts in a single location means voters must walk long distances to vote, and often have difficulty finding their precinct within the polling enter. Confusion and chaos make the polling and counting processes less transparent, potentially facilitating malpractice, and certainly diminishing credibility. The COMELEC should consider establishing no more than two or three precincts in any one location. For the convenience of the voters and more order, there could be more places set up as precincts or using tents for poll setting for the remote areas. In this manner voters can find their precinct easily, will not travel long distances, and can find their names on voters list without difficulty.

The ballot secrecy folders and the layout of the precincts were ineffective in ensuring the secrecy of the vote. In many precincts poll-watchers sat within a meter of voters, and could easily observe their selections. In several instances we saw voters curling their ballots in an attempt to prevent poll-watchers seeing their choices. This lack of secrecy can be very intimidating, and can facilitate vote-buying, by allowing voters to demonstrate their adherence to a previously struck bargain. The COMELEC should replace the ballot secrecy folders with actual voting screens, as are used in other countries, and ensure that desks are far enough apart to prevent violation of the secrecy of the vote.

Voters who had completed their ballots sometimes handed them over to the chair of the precinct, who would keep them in a stack next to unmarked but folded ballots until he had time to register the voter and put the ballots in the box. It is international best practice that after a voter has marked a ballot, he or she should retain that ballot in their possession until they deposit it in the ballot box.

Too many precincts observed had candidate materials and candidates themselves hanging around polling centers. It should be made clear in law and regulation that this is unacceptable.

Voters index fingers need to be examined to deter any person from trying to vote more than once. It was noted that most polling stations did not check the voters index finger, whether it was already inked. And sometimes voters did not have their fingers inked after casting their vote this procedure should be rigorously followed.

Counting Process

It is important to provide enough facilities for the counting at the precincts and at the counting centres. In some areas counting happened exactly as outlined in the Handbook for Members of the Board of Election Inspectors. However, these were the minority. They should provide enough light for the counting.

Proposals for Electoral reform

* The problem is mostly about the implementation and law enforcement. Impunity for election offences must be addressed.
* The law on campaign finance should be enforced. Overspending must be discouraged, and the source of funding should be clear.
* In order to cut down the cost of campaigning, and enhance accountability and representation, Senators could be elected by region rather than nationwide.
* The provision of the 1987 Constitution against political dynasties should be implemented by law to limit the number of politicians from same family or political clan.
* COMELEC must be more professional and need to disqualify those who misuse their power.
* The local election should be separated from the national one, to make the process more simple and transparent.
* The law on electoral modernization should be implemented for counting to prepare for coming elections.

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