An International Observer’s Perspective on the Philippines Election

By Roger Scott Powers

In May, I was privileged to serve as an election observer in the Philippines. I was one of 86 people from 11 countries to participate in the People’s International Observers’ Mission (PIOM), which was convened by a coalition of Philippine religious and human rights groups, including the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP).

It was hoped that the presence of international observers would help to deter acts of fraud and violence, which have long been part of elections in the Philippines. Where we witnessed irregularities, we were to document it. We were also to monitor the implementation of the new Automated Election System, as this was the first election in the Philippines to use electronic machines to scan ballots, count votes, and transmit vote tallies.

After a day and a half of orientation in Manila, we divided into nine teams and fanned out across the Philippines archipelago. I was part of an interfaith, multinational team assigned to observe the May 10 election in the agricultural province of Lanao del Sur. Located in Western Mindanao, Lanao del Sur is home to the Maranaos, which means “People of the Lake” – one of the 13 ethno-linguistic tribes of Muslim Filipinos, collectively known as the Bansamoro (a term which means “Moro nation”). Lanao del Sur is one of the five provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and it is one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines.

As election observers, we were impressed by people’s tremendous desire to exercise their right to vote, some walking or driving long distances and waiting for hours for their turn to cast their ballot. We were also pleased to hear election results being reported on the national level so quickly after Election Day – a development made possible by the automation of vote counting and canvassing.

On the other hand, we were deeply disappointed in the conduct of the election in Lanao del Sur, where violations of election laws and procedures were so widespread that the province could be declared “a democratic disaster area.” The inefficiency, incompetency, and corruption of the electoral process by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) and Smartmatic-TIM (the company contracted to automate the election), exacerbated by local clan rivalries and economic inequality, resulted in a miscarriage of democracy.

Precincts opened late. Polling places were disorganized. There were numerous problems with the ballot-scanning machines. Electioneering restrictions in and around polling places were not enforced. We commonly observed poll watchers, family members, and others discussing the ballot with voters, in some cases filling in the ballot for the voter. Ballot secrecy was often compromised. Minors were allowed to vote. Vote buying was rampant (voters who are poor and hungry are especially vulnerable to this kind of manipulation). And in one municipality, gun violence between supporters of rival mayoral candidates disrupted voting for more than an hour, leaving one person dead and another injured (imagine the Hatfields and the McCoys feuding over an election). It was reported to us that two more people were killed later in the day.

Unfortunately, our observations in Lanao del Sur were not unique. Intimidation, vote buying, corruption, and violence were reported in other parts of the country as well, leading us to conclude that the Philippine election was far from being fair, honest, or peaceful. The PIOM report and recommendations will be made public in the hope that lessons can be learned to make future Philippine elections freer and fairer.

The Sunday after the election, I was part of a church delegation that visited 43 health workers (the “Morong 43”) being held in a Manila prison. They were arrested illegally on Feb. 6 and have been detained illegally by the Philippine military and police ever since. The 43 were attending a Community First Responders’ Health Training, sponsored jointly by the Community Medicine Development Foundation and the Council for Health and Development, when they were arrested. The arresting authorities claim that they were learning how to make bombs and that firearms and explosives were found on the premises where they were staying. We listened to their story, shared sandwiches with them, sang with them, and prayed with them.

The campaign “FREE THE 43” demands their immediate, unconditional release and the dropping of the false charges against them. To learn more about their plight and how you can help, visit http://freethehealthworkers.blogspot.com/

Roger Scott Powers is pastor of Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and co-moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.