Lanao Sur elections neither peaceful nor democratic, international observers say

May. 16, 2007

WE, members and participants of the Peoples International Observers Mission (IOM) express shock and dismay at the brazen and numerous violations of election laws we witnessed in Lanao del Sur on May 14 and 15. We also grieve that the people of the province were again denied peaceful and credible elections by both the Commission on Elections (and its instrumentalities) and the opposing political interests and clans of Lanao del Sur.

We visited polling precincts and ballot-counting venues. We interviewed voters, Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) members, poll watchers, local media personnel, Namfrel and PPCRV officers and volunteers, the Philippine National Police provincial headquarters, and the Provincial Election Supervisor himself. We secured signed testimonies from witnesses, documents from offices, and we interviewed local experts on local culture and politics to gain learned perspectives on what we observed.

Despite report of peaceful and clean elections in Marawi City and Lanao del Sur, it is obvious to us based on what heard and saw, that the 2007 national and local elections in Lanao del Sur were neither peaceful, nor a democratic exercise.

Failure of elections
The IOM Lanao del Sur Team received and verified reports of Failure of Elections in 13 of the provinces 39 municipalities. These failures were either formally declared by the poll body or the elections simply did not happen because of the following reasons:

1. Absence of Election Officers (EOs) at their posts to preside over the distribution of campaign paraphernalia, the conduct of elections or to decide on contentious issues that needed action;
2. Municipal EOs were shuffled and changed by the Provincial Election Supervisor several times, with some reportedly being recalled to the provincial Comelec office on election date itself;
3. Violence, particularly killings, shootings and burnings that endangered the voters. These incidents caused widespread fear among the people and even greater animosity between opposing clans and groups; and
4. Lack of or missing election paraphernalia.

In one case, because of the absence of the Municipal EO, the military took over the decision-making process, in clear violation of laws dictating their impartiality and non-involvement in the actual conduct of the elections.

A third of the province failed to hold elections, the worst in the country even if compared with past elections. This will have a bearing on both local and national election results, again raising the questions vividly pictured by the Hello Garci scandal and the Gen. Gudani revelations.

Rampant violation of election laws
Our Team observed rampant vote-buying inside precincts. Peso bills were stapled on sample ballots and campaign paraphernalia of certain candidates. Precinct ball pens even sported candidates names, violating the ban on election day campaigning. Poll watchers sat beside voters dictating the names to be written on the ballots and passing lists of candidate through window grills. They also had virtual run of the polling precincts, dictating who could come in or go out the doors. The people were denied their right to freely choose their candidates.
Many voters cast ballots several times. Minors voted, instigated by supporters of candidates. Indelible ink easily washed off with soap and water. We also saw and interviewed many disenfranchised voters.

BEIs appeared powerless to stop these violations. Comelec clearly failed to ensure the orderly conduct of elections. No voters lists were posted outside classrooms; Ballot Secrecy Folders with attached lists of candidates in national and local positions were absent.

Members of the Philippine National Police-Regional Special Action Force with high-powered guns caused fear among members of our delegation. While were told by some that the elections were peaceful, the mere presence of these armed men indicates otherwise. There can be no peaceful elections while armed personnel were inside polling places. The police also dictated on the BEIs on their precincts closing time.

Even with Comelec-issued media IDs on prominent display, signed by Chairperson Benjamin Abalos himself, our media team was harassed and confronted by partisans outside the polling precincts. Our video camera was even hit by a congressional candidates supporter to prevent us from taking shots of the illegal and immoral proceedings. It was only our cameras that seemed to deter the violations taking place.

Other distressing sights
Conditions BEI members were forced to endure while counting votes shocked and distressed foreign delegates of our IOM Team. Teachers were forced to squat on wet grounds with no roofs over their heads at the Peoples Park grounds, one of several centralized venues for vote-counting in the city. The venues were crowded, noisy, dark, humid and absolutely chaotic. BEIs only had Comelec-provided candles to read the ballots with and make appropriate marks on tally sheets. Tally sheets were also accessible to just about anybody. These conditions allow honest mistakes or cheating to be committed with impunity casting serious doubts on the credibility of the process.

We found out later that vote-counting in past elections were held inside the Mindanao State University campus where each precinct were given classrooms of their own with adequate lighting and protection from the elements. We find no reason why Comelec did not use the same in favor of the woefully inadequate ones used this year. Absolutely no one deserves to labor under such conditions. This country has had many elections in the past and knew about the 2007 polls years before. Our hearts go out to all the teachers and honest poll workers who struggled with gargantuan tasks they were ordered to perform under near impossible conditions and tremendous pressures.

Before coming to the Philippines, international delegates of the mission believed to the Philippines to be a democratic country. But after what we witnessed in the conduct of elections in Marawi City, we now question our previous impressions. We defer to the entire International Observers Mission when it convenes in Manila tomorrow to come out with the overall analysis, observations and, if possible, recommendations on the conduct of this years elections in the entire country. We make it clear this statement is based on our direct observations of the elections in Lanao del Sur, interviews with stakeholders and experts, and initial analyses of them.

What were very obvious and undeniable was that the government failed to redeem itself from the wide belief that it benefited from these illegal practices in Lanao del Sur in particular and the entire Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in general in 2004. And the Comelec, by sins of commission and omission, presided yet again over abominably chaotic elections. Democracy was not served and the peoples deepest aspirations were not advanced in these elections.

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