(Larawan sa Kaliwa: President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2nd R) has lunch with Zaldy Ampatuan, cache.daylife.com/.../
Palace endorsement to determine Ampatuan's re-election bid
By DAVID DIZON
With the automation of the upcoming August 11 elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a question remains: will election machinery still count?
According to advocates of electoral reforms in the region, the blessings of Malacañang on a candidate could still matter.
Salic Ibrahim, chairman of Citizens CARE, Inc., an umbrella of 25 ARMM-based non-governmental organizations, said Friday that the endorsement of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party could spell the difference for the re-election bid of incumbent governor Zaldy Ampatuan.
Ampatuan is up against rival Alvarez Isnaji, incumbent mayor of Indanan, Sulu.
Elections in the six ARMM provinces have been frequently marred by violence and irregularities. The release of the "Hello, Garci" wiretapping tapes in 2005 showed a vast network of election officers allegedly rigging poll results in the region.
The upcoming election is particularly important for ARMM due to increased pressure on the government to fast-track peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Several groups have called for the postponement of the polls to enable government to focus on the peace process and the tripartite review of the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
ARMM is composed of the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi; and Marawi City.
Ibrahim said that since the creation of ARMM in 1990, administration gubernatorial candidates have always won the regional elections.
"The machinery of the administration is too strong. Iba talaga yung may basbas. That’s one of the factors that could determine a win,” Ibrahim told abs-cbnNEWS.com.
“Whoever controls the machinery has an edge," he stressed.
Ibrahim said Citizens CARE's experience in monitoring the 2007 mid-term and barangay elections showed the advantages of being Malacañang's anointed for the elections. He said candidates who were endorsed by Malacañang usually have more money, manpower and influence, which translates to more votes.
He added, however, that Ampatuan faces a tough fight against Isnaji after the MNLF top leadership expressed intention to retake control of the ARMM.
The August 11 election is the seventh in the 18-year history of the ARMM. Zacaria Candao of Maguindanao was the first to be elected governor in 1990, followed by Liningding Pangandaman of Lanao del Sur in 1993. Chairman Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front held the gubernatorial post starting in 1996 until his arrest in late 2001. His foreign affairs officer, Dr. Parouk Hussin, took over from 2002 to 2005.
Poll automation a challenge
Thus, the decision of the Commission on Elections to automate the August 11 poll is a new and crucial element brought into the ARMM election mix. Automation has long been hoped to help restore the credibility of the electoral system in ARMM.
“The electoral process in ARMM is very long because of the unique terrain of the ARMM provinces,” explains Ibrahim. “There are islands that are very far from the landlocked provinces. The longer the process, the more time is given for opportunities for fraud to come in."
The COMELEC has granted poll automation contracts to Smartmatic Sahi Joint Venture and Avante Technology to automate the August 11 elections in ARMM. Smartmatic will provide direct recording electronic (DRE) machines for the Maguindanao poll as well as the transmission system for poll results in the entire region. Avante will provide optical mark reader machines for the rest of ARMM.
Ibrahim said ARMM voters should be taught how to use the DRE and OMR machines before the actual poll.
But with the voters’ limited experience of anything automated, Ibrahim said it will be a challenge getting the voters ready for the voting machines in time. Some ARMM residents still don't know how to use an ATM machine, let alone an automated voting machine.
Nonetheless, Ibrahim is optimistic. "The shorter timetable is a hurdle but it is still good that we will automate. Of course, automation is no guarantee that the election will be smooth because both the voters and the COMELEC officers are unfamiliar with the technology," he said.
Media, civil society to play a role
To ensure credibility, media’s and civil society’s involvement will be crucial—again.
"There was a lot of media coverage of the ARMM polls last year,” Ibrahim said. “We were making headlines every day, which really raised awareness of what was happening here. It placed the focus on ARMM.
He said the noise made by election watchdogs disrupted several attempts to rig the elections.
Still, he said election irregularity remained rampant in the region as evidenced by the unusual increase in voters numbers for ARMM. One example, he said, is the 30 percent increase in alleged number of voters in Lanao del Sur, from 290,000 in 2004 to 396,000 for 2007. "Even if ARMM residents had triplets, that rise in number of voters is still unusual," he said.
Ibrahim said Citizens CARE is partnering with a bigger number of civil society groups such as Lente, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), and the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) to prevent poll fraud from happening.
He said the group will also create provincial election task groups that will coordinate on action points and key strategies in guarding the polls. He added that the group will also implement voters' education in at least 1,500 barangays in ARMM.
"Civil society and watchdog groups should have the muscle to guard the elections. We have to work together and get the numbers needed to completely monitor the elections," he said.
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