LP urges movement to protect the ballot

LP urges movement to protect the ballot
By Vincent Cabreza, Leila Salaverria, Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The Liberal Party (LP) is inviting rival parties to form a movement that would protect the ballot and allay fears the country’s first automated election on May 10 has been designed to fail.

But the LP has not discussed this offer with Sen. Manuel Villar, standard-bearer of the Nacionalista Party (NP) and strongest rival of LP presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III, said Avelino Cruz Jr., who chairs the Bantay Balota Movement.

Cruz, a former defense secretary and an Aquino supporter, said on Sunday that the Catholic Church, which has formed a movement to monitor the elections, would likely discuss the campaign with Villar.

Cruz was in Baguio City on Sunday with Florencio Abad Jr., LP campaign manager, to organize party members into a local Bantay Balota chapter.

In Lucena City, Villar said his party would do everything that it could to thwart attempts to sabotage the elections.

“We’ve started to train watchers and lawyers as well as colleagues on the automated elections. We are doing everything that we could to stop any attempt to disrupt the elections,” Villar told reporters on Sunday on the sidelines of the NP’s free concert rally.

Work together

Villar also urged other political parties and organizations to do the same and expressed hope that all could work together to have clean and honest elections.

Villar reiterated his call for the public to remain vigilant amid fears that the automated elections would fail.

Certain quarters have warned that a failure of elections in which no winner in the presidential election is proclaimed by June 30, the last day of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in office, could lead to a military takeover.

They said glitches in the automated counting machines and possible massive power outages, among other things, could delay the release of election results.

Summon prophets of doom

An election lawyer, however, has suggested that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) summon and challenge the “prophets of doom,” who speak ill of the automated polls.

Romulo Macalintal, Ms Arroyo’s election lawyer, said that if the naysayers failed to support their claims, the Comelec could file charges against them.

Macalintal is one of three election lawyers who will appear in a TV commercial in which they will proclaim their support for the automated elections to help boost the public’s confidence in the exercise. The others are Sixto Brillantes and George Garcia.

“We believe that we should give automation a chance,” Macalintal told reporters.

The Comelec has intensified its campaign to educate voters about the new system, conducting demonstrations on how the ballot machine works even in far-flung communities.

Voters will be using for the first time a machine called the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) into which completed ballots are fed and scanned. Results are expected within 2 hours at the local level and 36 hours at the national level.

Subpoena naysayers

Macalintal also urged the Comelec to subpoena naysayers and ask them to back up their statements.

If there is evidence, the Comelec can still lay down additional measures to address the causes of a possible failure of elections. But if there is none, the Comelec should cite these people in contempt or file election cases against them, Macalintal added.

The Omnibus Election Code punishes those who make false information that could affect the elections, he pointed out.

Election Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said the poll body en banc had yet to discuss Macalintal’s proposal, but he welcomed the idea.

Glitches, bugs

In Dagupan City, a senatorial candidate of the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino said automation could encounter glitches and elections could fail.

Jose de Venecia III, the man who blew the whistle on alleged anomalies in a government broadband contract with a Chinese firm, said even a simple program for a bank took him a year to perfect.

“The same thing would happen [in the program for the voting machines]. There will be bugs,” De Venecia, son of Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr., told reporters Monday.

Open source code

The young De Venecia said there was a need to know the source code of the program that runs the election machines. The code is the heart of the software that gives instructions to the computer.

“We hope the election program is tested first, for example, in Metro Manila. If there are problems, these could be remedied [immediately],” he said.

While De Venecia said he was one of the few people who understood the repercussions of using an untested computer program, he joined the senatorial race “on a leap of faith.”

This is because it is easy to cheat in automated elections, according to De Venecia.

Cruz said the LP had asked the Comelec to fulfill its obligation to open up the source code of the PCOS machines for inspection by political parties.

When the Comelec relented, the LP could not access every detail about the source code given the tight restrictions which the poll body enforced, Cruz said.

Give automation a chance

Amid the apprehensions, a Catholic bishop in Southern Mindanao has urged voters give automated elections a chance, saying a fast and smooth election “has been a long-time dream of Filipinos.”

“For a long time, we have been hoping for a fast election where we could right away determine the will of the people,” Bishop Wilfredo Manlapaz of the Tagum diocese told a congregation of over a thousand during the signing of a peace covenant by local candidates at Christ the King Cathedral here on March 21.

Manlapaz said automation “could [contribute to the holding of] a violent-free, clean and credible election.”

Lawyer Marlon Casquejo, assistant Davao regional elections chief, said the Comelec was on track in its education and information campaign.

“Even the education campaigns at the GKKs (Gagmay’ng Kristohanong Katilingban or Basic Ecclesial Communities) are very much welcome,” Casquejo said, adding the commission “is now 90 percent ready.” With a report from Yolanda Sotelo, Inquirer Northern Luzon