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The Manila Times - Defying President Duterte’s call for honest polls

News & Interviews
4 February 2021

By Ricardo Saludo | The Manila Times

BEFORE the headline topic, a comment about another leader and her election issues. Former presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Joseph Estrada and Donald Trump were cited in a recent business paper’s column on impeachment.

The Arroyo reference shows how media narratives tend to stick, even to the detriment of truth. The article claimed that wiretapped phone conversations “indicated that Arroyo was asking the election official to rig the election.”

Yet hard data showed that the 2004 presidential polls reflected not fraud but the sovereign will of Filipino voters.

In the last Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia surveys two weeks before voting; the four exit polls done by broadcasters ABS-CBN, GMA, Radyo Veritas and DZRH; the citizens’ count by the National Movement for Free Elections, or Namfrel; and the official canvassing by Congress, Arroyo won ( and Now, did all those entities conspire to rig the count, as fraud claims imply?

No wonder in her October 2005 article, “Truth is GMA won,” addressing the election controversy, Solita Monsod, whose adherence to hard data made her economic planning czar under President Corazon Aquino, had a different view.

“Like it or not, Ms. Arroyo is our legitimate President,” she concluded, citing much of the above data and presumably after some discussion with her husband, respected former Comelec chief Christian Monsod. “Let us not allow ourselves to be misled by those who are themselves misled or who have their own political ambitions”

Smartmatic again in 2022?!

Fast-forward to today: In the interest of honest, transparent and credible polls in May 2022, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) must declare in no uncertain terms that Smartmatic, the controversial contractor for the automated election system (AES) used in national polls since 2010, will not handle vote counting and canvassing next year.

That’s what President Duterte himself, who appointed or will be appointing all seven Comelec commissioners by next February, had repeatedly asked. In May 2019, weeks after midterm elections, he already called for change.

“I would like to advise Comelec now, ‘di ko na lang hintayin (I will not wait): Dispose of that Smartmatic and look for a new one free of fraud,” he said in his address to Filipinos in Tokyo. “If you use that (Smartmatic) in the next election three years from now, I don’t know what will happen. Something has got to give. Improve on the systems. Stop using Smartmatic.”

With all seven Comelec commissioners, including Chairman Sheriff Abas, appointed or due to be appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte before the May 2022 elections, one would think he would have his way. Guess again.

Despite Duterte’s urging, some Comelec officials cited legal constraints in barring Smartmatic from bidding. Then, last October, commission spokesman James Jimenez announced that the 97,350 Smartmatic vote-counting machines, or VCMs, with modems and headphones, bought by Comelec in 2018 for P2.2 billion, would again be used in May 2022.

That prompted civil society and religious groups last November to come out in force against Smartmatic. Namfrel, Kontra Daya, the National Council of Churches of the Philippines, the Christian Family Movement of the Philippines, the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals, Businessmen and Professionals for Good Governance, and Filipino American Human Rights Alliance, among other clean-election advocates, called on Congress to pass a law mandating a different system.

“We the people agree and would rather have an alternative AES that is more transparent and Filipino-made that ensures sovereignty of our election process,” declared the joint statement. “We appeal to President Duterte, Congress, and the Comelec to ensure that the 2022 national elections are fair, accurate and transparent.”

The groups also urged political parties to back the call for a new system. In sum, they argued that problems in Smartmatic-tabulated elections “far outweighed the benefits” of reusing its system, just because the country already bought its VCMs.

In 2010, as told by sources close to the military, computerized fraud nearly triggered a coup, but for Cabinet intervention. Losing vice-presidential candidate Manuel Roxas 2nd eventually protested VP Jejomar Binay’s victory. Three years later, an Ateneo de Manila mathematics professor reported a dubious pattern in senatorial results, with administration, opposition, and independent candidates forming a uniform 70-20-10 winning slate across disparate regions.

In 2016, an unauthorized programming change done by Smartmatic preceded the overnight reversal of VP candidate and subsequent protester Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s million-strong lead to a 200,000-vote deficit to eventual winner Leonor Robredo. And in midterm elections two years ago, media could not access the Comelec transparency server to check canvassing in real time, prompting fraud fears.

Palace and Congress must act

What now? Last December the Comelec reportedly awarded Smartmatic a P660-million contract to refurbish its VCMs for use next year. Days later, however, outspoken Commissioner Rowena Guanzon denied the report, since rival Pivot International Inc.-Power Serve Inc., which bid P490 million, had asked the Comelec to reconsider its disqualification by the AES bids and awards committee.

Let’s cut to the chase: The Comelec will almost surely reuse Smartmatic, unless barred by law. It makes wholesale vote-rigging both easy to do and hard to prove. Incumbents helped by such machinations, including many in the ruling coalition, would seek to do so again.

Many AES opponents fear speaking out and displeasing Comelec insiders. And the administration’s current charter change drive may make its bosses see Smartmatic as guaranteed Cha-cha ratification. Many will likely ask President Duterte to let it stay, as predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd did, despite running mate Roxas’ protests.

Let’s pray Duterte resists the temptation to exploit the system and sticks to his rightful call for election transparency. May the Philippines learn from Germany. In 2009, years after trying automated polls, its high court ruled that election processes and results should be verifiable by ordinary citizens, not just computer experts. One way to do this is the hybrid system of manual counting and electronic results transmission, as proposed in Congress.
Next election let’s ensure that our democracy is truly a government of, for, and by the Filipino people.