THE PHILIPPINES may be the oldest democracy in Asia but judging by events during the May 2007 mid-term elections it is not in the best of health. This conclusion was based on my experience as a member the international observers mission organized by the Compact for Peaceful Elections, a consortium of civil society groups and political groups including Akbayan, dedicated to promote violence-free and democratic politics in the Philippines. There were some 220 foreign observers for the elections in which approx 17,263 positions at national, provincial and local level were contested by some 79,000 candidates.
Our team consisted of 16 people from 9 countries and included politicians, film makers and members of NGO’s, political parties and research institutes from Asia, Europe and the US. Teams of observers were sent to election “hotspots” which had a history of violence and fraud including Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Negros, Bicol and Cotabato City in the southern Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. I joined the team of three in this last area because of my previous work in Cotabato City with the Political Caucus of Women Leaders in Mindanao. Following briefings in Manila we were in the field for 4 days during which time we interviewed candidates, election officials and members of civil society and political parties and observed election preparations, polling day and vote counting. On our return to Manila we shared experiences and in a press conference described our conclusion that “There is a general feeling amongst voters that their votes would not count, a sentiment provoked by a lack of order in the process, inefficiency in the Commission on Elections and the reported acts of fraud and violence allegedly committed by the politicians, election officials and armed groups.”
While the presence of our teams may have helped to serve as a deterrent to the extremes of fraud and violence in the areas we observed, the scale of violence in the country overall was horrific – 128 election-related killings and over 200 other incidents of violence since the campaign period officially began on 14 January, including ten killed on election day. Killings included candidates, their family members and supporters, and teachers working as poll officials. Electoral fraud is endemic and widespread and includes blatant vote buying (prices vary from a few cents to hundreds of dollars), pre-filled ballots, manipulation of registered voter lists, vote “shaving and padding” where votes are lost or gained in the lengthy manual counting process.
But despite this appalling state of affairs there is hope for democracy.
The thousands of volunteer poll watchers from civil society and church groups, the defeat of some of the infamous family clans, and a vibrant free press are all positive signs. While the government of President Arroyo has retained control of the House of Representatives her Team Unity candidates were rebuffed in the Senate where opposition and independent candidates appear to have won 10 of the 12 vacancies.
I hope that the recommendations from our IOM which will be publicly released by Compact shortly will add strength to the voices calling for political and electoral reform in the Philippines.
Dr Lesley Clark
International Trainer and Observer for the Australian Labor Party (ALP)