The COMPACT for Peaceful Elections, a national campaign initiative of civil society organizations including community and church-based groups, the business sector and mass media, was launched in February this year to seek commitment for peaceful elections from political parties and their candidates. All the major party representatives and candidates signed the COMPACT Covenant rejecting any threat of coup de e'tat, the use of private armies, "permit to campaign fees" or other forms of extortion or coercion, violence or harassment that might undermine the sanctity of the vote and violate basic human rights. An International Observers Mission (IOM) was tasked to scrutinize the conduct of the elections and reinforce local monitoring. The 16 members of the IOM came from Australia, United Kingdom, Finland, Germany, France, Sweden, Scotland, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea.
The Australian members of the International Observers Mission, Commissioner MELBA MARGINSON of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, MARIA SELGA Chairperson of the Victoria Branch of CPCA, and CHRISTOPHER SCOTT International Studies researcher, University of Sydney, commended the Filipino people for their continued vigilance to achieve free and fair elections.
Our Thai observer aptly described the Philippine election as a big fiesta as he saw streets, shops, buildings, parks and practically any available surface littered with election posters, banners, buntings and other paraphernalia (see photo below). However, while fun fare was the general mood of the recently concluded elections, there were significant signs of a growing passion amongst voters to know the candidates' profiles, achievements and platforms as well as juicy stories of their personal and political lives. In the midst of anger and frustration over election-related violence, Filipinos have shown renewed vigour in exercising their right to vote. We saw these changes before and during the elections as we went about our monitoring tasks.
Herman Schmid of the European Parliament, said: "I'm impressed by the high participation of the population. I am surprised because the political power is centralized at the elite level. I didn't expect people to be so interested. The vitality of the political system is really experienced at the local level."
The candidates were mostly the usual - traditional politicians, showbiz people, warlords, and political dynasties. The only new players were those who came from cause-oriented organizations under the party lists.
Most candidates spent hundreds of thousands, and even millions of pesos in these elections. It's no wonder some have resorted to violence, vote buying and other forms of electoral fraud so that they will win and be able to get their money back. An IOM observer said, "The votes can be bought especially in areas where the people are very poor. It's a joke of a democracy when there are candidates who buy votes just to win".
COMELEC (Government Commission on Election) and the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI)
The decision of the COMELEC to only partially modernize the electoral process contributed to the eventual slow counting and canvassing that took more than a month.
My group was assigned to the Camanava (Caloocan-Malabon-Navotas-Valenzuela) area. We were lucky to have interviewed the COMELEC Chair in Bagong Silang, the biggest barangay of the Philippines, with more than 72,000 registered voters. Atty. Rojas expressed her concern about the possibility of election-related violence. She also agreed with us that because people do not know they need to certify deaths in their families, dead persons may still be on the electoral list. Out of curiosity, I asked one of the COMELEC staff to search for my deceased brother's name. I had the unnerving experience of seeing his name on the electoral list for our precinct, complete with his birth details and address. He died 18 months ago.
During the actual elections on May 10, we witnessed how the secrecy of the ballot was not safeguarded. The voter's space was a school desk spaced just a bit apart from the next. Secrecy of the ballot was the voter's look-out since there was nothing to shield the voter while filling out the ballot. A folder envelope on top of the voter's desk was for the list of candidates to choose from. Some Bagong Silang voters filled up their ballots with poll watchers or another voter beside them. They even conversed loudly while voting. A poll watcher who went with the team called the attention of the Board of Election Inspector to the voters huddled together while voting. Two voters explained they were mother and son sharing a kodigo (prepared list of candidates).
During the counting of ballots, most ballot readers (presumably BEI's) did not display well the ballot being read while poll watchers hardly made an effort to read what they heard. Poll watchers seemed to concentrate more on the tally board. The Canvass Tally Sheets too were already signed and thumb-marked by poll watchers and BEI's before the votes were counted.
Vote denial was probably the most significant undemocratic outcome of these elections. There was speculation that maybe more than a million registered to vote were not able to because their names were not on the electoral list. While in a Bagong Silang voting precinct, we were approached by some twenty persons complaining that they could not find their names in the Computerized Voters List (CVL) and it turned out there had earlier been over 60 people who reported to an AKBAYAN coordinator they were denied their votes because they were not on the CVL. There were no guidelines nor advice from COMELEC for those who could not find their names on the list. There was no group assigned by the COMELEC to be in-charge of such problems on election day.
The "Permit to Campaign" and vote-buying
Two of the IOM teams actually saw copies of the "permit to campaign" (PTC) issued by the New People's Army to candidates wanting to campaign in areas the NPA consider under their control. The printing on the PTC receipts indicates that the NPA have been issuing these receipts systematically.
The team assigned in Agusan del Norte led by Fr. Archie Casey from the United Kingdom, said of the PTC, "This should not be allowed. It restricts the movement of the candidates; it's a violation of human rights."
Simon Brook, a consultant from the United Kingdom who was part of the Cebu-Bohol team, said his group also got copies of the NPA's PTC demand letter in Bohol. He noted that the candidates in Bohol might have paid PTC fees, because nothing bad happened to the IOM team during the election period.
An alliance of party-list groups, the Party-list Caucus composed of Abanse Pinay, Akbayan, Sanlakas, among others, said that as much as 2 billion pesos were received by the NPA through the PTC during elections.
Herman Schmid from Sweden, a member of the European Parliament, described the PTC of the NPA as a very "systematic process of taxing candidates" to have safe access to rebel territories. "It really has the character of an official document," said Schmid.
Evidence of vote-buying was also observed. Peso bills stapled on 'how to vote' cards seemed the normal thing to expect. IOM members noted that the serial numbers on the money were in sequence, indicating the systematic way in which vote-buying occurred in Bohol.
The Davao IOM team reported incidents of "organized" violence. A number of electoral-related murders happened in areas around the Moncayao Gold Mine. Beginning with the assassination of the incumbent Mayor, all the murders were clearly targeted killings related to power and control of the wealth generated by the mining operations.
We were told about two violent election-related incidents. In one, the secretary and political strategist of the acting Malabon City mayor was shot in the Lakas CMD party campaign headquarters while the 67-year old man lay asleep. In another incident, a hand grenade was thrown at the local headquarters of LDP-KNP mayoral candidate. The blast killed two women, a 39-year old campaign leader and a 17-year old supporter.
We also gathered information about the history of violence in the area amongst the candidates' supporters. We learned that some local and national candidates have private armies. It seemed to us that the presence of private armies was responsible for most of the election-related violence in the local areas.
Over 100 people were killed and 141 wounded in connection with the 2001 congressional and local elections, said to be the bloodiest since 1986. However, this was superseded by the 2004 elections with 126 people killed.
The Party List system
If there was one thing that impressed all of the IOM observers, it was the party-list system.
Forty-five percent or 13 million Filipinos voted for party-list representatives in this election. Twenty-four representatives belonging to 16 party-list parties and groups are now able to participate in the governance of the Filipino nation. The increase in party list representatives in Congress may not be significant (from 20 in 2001 to 24 in 2004), but the voting base of the winning party-list groups has doubled (from 6.5 million in 2001 to 13 million in 2004). Thus indicating a growing popularity of the party list system.
It should be noted however that the 2004 party-list election filled only 24 of the 52 available seats.
Frenchman Pierre Rousset of the IOM said he would like a party-list system to be introduced in his country. He said it would give those outside the mainstream a chance to get elected.
"The party-list system gives marginalized groups the opportunity to be represented by non-traditional political parties," said Rousset.