Foreign poll observers: We felt safer in Afghanistan

This is really so pathetic. It is a shame. This is where the major cheating will be made. There is no democracy in our country… it is “all-talk” and nothing sincere. The ARMM should have a separate voting where all eyes will be on them and quadruple the number of watchers and security.

Posted May 17, 2007 03:11:00(Mla Time)

Inquirer

Cynthia Balana
MANILA, Philippines — Despite the “fiesta” atmosphere during the May 14 elections, foreign observers who monitored the voting in Mindanao said Wednesday they worried constantly about possible violence and felt safer in Afghanistan.

They also reported incidents of intimidation, blatant vote-buying, candidates’ poll watchers dictating names to voters as they filled out their ballots and lack of voter respect for election institutions in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

In a statement, the team of 21 foreign observers from the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) said that while the government claimed the balloting was generally peaceful, it was not so in the ARMM.

It said the ARMM polling was “manipulated by outsiders” and that the culture of impunity for election and political crime may fuel calls for an alternative government that could provide justice for the people.

“The situation is not so comfortable especially if you have the military everywhere and also weapons everywhere,” said Somsri Hananontasuk, Anfrel director from Thailand.

Somsri, who said she saw confrontations between rival candidates and two bomb blasts, had also observed polls in 2004 and 2005 in Afghanistan.

She said she felt safer in Afghanistan than last Monday.

“Of course, we were also afraid of the underground Taliban … but at least we don’t have shooting… the threat from two sides when you go anywhere and the guns that sometimes are poised,” she added.

Hot in Mindanao

The observers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand spent eight days in six ARMM provinces and visited more than 500 precincts.

Mohamad Yunus Lebai Ali, director of the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI) in Malaysia, said it was “a hot situation” in Mindanao, particularly in Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.

“We are not passing judgment. We came here more as a fact-finding mission to learn from each other and observe. We have universal criteria of elections,” he stressed, including whether the exercise was peaceful, free and fair.

Ali said the observers agreed that the atmosphere was not conducive to elections in the visited ARMM provinces.

No secrecy in voting

“I did not feel physically safe, what more the voters?” he said.

“It’s not to say the election was fair. We saw how protection took place, many cases of vote manipulation. It’s very hard to say there was no cheating up to election day,” he said.

Ali said that being free meant the voting must be done confidentially, which was not the case in the precincts the observers visited.

“We observed a lot of coaching inside precincts where people were being commanded to write the names and I myself observed flying voters in truck loads with 20-25 of them coming to precincts,” he stressed.

Women participation

Somsri noted the deployment of military personnel outside the voting centers in schools.

But she also noted some positive things, such as more women participation in all aspects of the electoral processes, the festive mood in most polling precincts despite the long lines of voters and the vigilance of civil society.

“It is a fiesta of democracy and I take it as celebration of democracy,” she said.

Amim Shah Bin Iskandor of Malaysia said he talked to some people who even tried to sell their votes, something he had never experienced in his country.

“To me, it is very cheap, just P20. This incident happened one day before the election. They’re not afraid and they showed money, they got it,” Iskandor said.

The observers blamed the “clan system” for the continuing political dynasties in the Philippines and said this was not good for the Philippines and other Asian countries.

Use symbols for candidates

Rashid Rashad of Sri Lanka’s People’s Action for Fair and Free Elections compared the Philippines’ antiquated voting process with the more advanced card system used in Sri Lanka’s elections.

“The people are not educated, the ballots are very big. Why don’t you introduce a card system where people just have to choose symbols (for candidates) to make it more simple for voters? The long paper is discouraging voters,” she said.

Proposals for reform

The team proposed several electoral reforms:

• Election offenses must be addressed swiftly.

• The law on campaign finance should be enforced. Overspending must be discouraged, and the source of funding should be clear.

• Cut down the cost of campaigning and enhance accountability and representation by having senators elected by region rather than nationwide.

• The anti-dynasty provision of the Constitution should be implemented to limit the number of politicians from the same family or political clan.

• The Commission on Elections must be more professional and those who misuse their power should be disqualified.

• The local election should be separated from the national to make the process simpler and more transparent.

• The law on modernization should be implemented in coming elections. With reports from Cathy Yamsuan and Associated Press

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