Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A window of opportunity
By Rina Jimenez-DavidInquirer
Last updated 03:12am
(Mla time) 10/03/2007

MANILA, Philippines--Now that Chair Benjamin Abalos has finally resigned from the Commission on Elections (Comelec), he leaves a window of opportunity for all well-meaning individuals, including, because hope springs eternal, the appointing power, to create a “new and refreshed” Comelec.

With the vacancy created by Abalos, and many commissioners retiring in the next few months, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her advisers have the chance to appoint a whole new board of commissioners (or at least a majority) who can truly transform the Comelec into an independent, non-partisan poll body by adopting the necessary reforms in our electoral system.
The most pressing of these reforms is computerization, reducing, if not eliminating entirely, the human “hands” that get in contact with ballots, tally sheets, canvassing forms, statements -- and in the process manage to lose, replace, revise, and reconfigure them and thus turn our elections into a sham.

True, we have been warned that computerization alone won’t be able to wipe out all forms of fraud or cheating. There are the “hands” (and duplicitous brains) involved, after all, in preparing the basic program that will run the software involved in reading and counting the ballots. Or even before then, the “hands” involved in preparing the registration rolls, which are the basic material on which clean, honest and credible elections are based. Still, computerization would make for a good start, and we can input all the protection measures we want right now, while we still have time to choose and pick among the many voting programs available.

Sen. Dick Gordon, whose pet measure has been computerized voting, says we don’t even have to write new programs or choose from among untested models. All around the world are computerized voting and counting systems that have long been used and proven successful. In Hawaii, for instance, he saw voting computers that even provided Ilocano translations of the instructions.

* * *

So what are we waiting for? Gordon said, during the run-up to last May’s elections, that there were funds available for a test run -- which the Comelec refused to implement -- as well as for the national adoption of automated elections. The mandate for computerizing voting and ballot counting is more than a decade old, and in fact has already been amended.

We have the implementing law, we have the funds, and we have many eager aspirants, Filipinos as well as foreigners, offering their software and hardware to the Comelec. Of course, we also have the MegaPacific deal hanging like an ominous shadow over the entire move to computerize the polls.

But that contract, voided by the Supreme Court, was anomalous only because it was overpriced, didn’t go through the normal legal processes of bidding, and was going to be implemented by a company that was both under-funded and incapable of meeting the technical demands of the project. The justices were of the opinion that this anomalous transaction would not have been possible were it not for the consent, if not collusion, of Comelec officials, none of whom were found liable by the Ombudsman. And that’s why the pending replacement of the present crew of Comelec leaders is really the first step toward not just computerization but broader reforms.

* * *

So what’s holding us back?

Our lawmakers, as well as MalacaƱang, have kept a deafening silence on the issue, which is strange because President Arroyo herself, during her first term, declared that computerized elections were a priority. And, judging from the thunder and lightning emanating from candidates and supporters in the period leading to, during and after the voting, you would think they would go for computerization at the drop of a hat.

But the reality is that cheating benefits candidates, and has become in this country a not-so-little industry in itself. The possibility of eking out an electoral victory in the last few days of canvassing by “tweaking” the results continues to tantalize moist-eyed aspirants, who would not want their defeat in the polls “prematurely” sealed by quick and objective counting machines.
And what are we to do with the watchers and representatives, as well as the members of boards of canvassers, who stand to make tidy incomes by playing their designated roles in “ensuring” the right results? Goons and guns have largely been rendered inutile in reversing election results, except perhaps in the usual “hot spots” where rivals are conveniently put out of commission, but surely even private armies would resent the loss of any extra seasonal income.

* * *

We are these days facing a real turning point in our history as a democracy. We have the opportunity, depending on the men and women chosen by the President to take the reins of the Comelec, to either turn it into an efficient, credible, and reliable poll monitor, or into the same, if not worse, business-as-usual Comelec whose oversight duties over the past elections have either been sloppy or corrupt.

But let’s say President Arroyo surprises even the cynics and finds individuals of rectitude and independence to appoint to the Comelec. These people would then have to find the motivation to go against tradition and inertia induced by familiarity, and begin the process of transition into automated polls. They would have to withstand all sorts of temptation, too, and develop enough independence of spirit to ignore the pleas of influence peddlers, whose numbers and strength seem to be increasing steadily under the Arroyo administration.

Our hope -- and it is a faint hope -- rests finally on the assumption that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will be brave enough to act against her own interests.

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