MANILA, Philippines - For the third time in our hundred-year history of political polls, we will once again chase after the ideal of automated elections. Some 1.5 million voters in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will troop to the polling booths today to choose the regional governor, the regional vice governor and members of the regional legislative assembly.
They will do so using either of two automated systems. Commission on Elections chair Jose Melo put it pithily, in his useful list of ?10 things to remember? for the
?If you?re voting in Maguindanao, remember that you will be using the direct recording electronic voting system. All you have to do to vote is to press on the picture of the candidate you wish to vote for.?
?If you?re voting in Shariff Kabunsuan, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu or Tawi-Tawi, remember that you will be using the optical mark reader-based technology. This means that you will be using a paper ballot but you will NOT write the names of the candidate of your choice. All you have to do is shade in the oval next to the candidate?s name. Shade the oval completely!?
This is not the first time that the ARMM has been used as a testing ground for computerized elections. In 1996 and again in 1998, it hosted similar tests. Through lack of political will in the national capital, however, these tests proved inconclusive. Indeed, national politicians have continued to treat the vote in certain provinces of the ARMM as fraud-fertile. Fairly or not, the ARMM remains associated in the public mind with large-scale voting fraud.
Foreign observers are already in the region to monitor the elections. They may have arrived intending to focus on the use of the automated systems, in the context of the region?s reputation for fraud. Today, however, with renewed clashes between the Armed Forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, they must focus on ?peace and order??on whether the threat of violence has depressed voter turnout or distorted the voting outcome in certain areas.
Today?s polls, then, are a test of automation. But they are also a test of the maturity of the region?s voters. Is the ARMM ready to choose the leaders it deserves?
That question is being asked not only in the national capital, but in town and cities of Mindanao too. It is raised against a specific background: the rise and fall of ?Maas,? the Old Man.
Nur Misuari, the founder of the Moro National Liberation Front who signed the peace accord of 1996, came to power as ARMM governor with high expectations. (Indeed, he ran unopposed.) From the point of view of ARMM development, however, his tenure proved to be a grave disappointment. (He concentrated power in his hands, and all but ignored the provincial governors in the region.) But from the point of view of personal political survival, he also failed, because in 2001, at the end of his term, he turned his back on the 1996 peace pact and launched a new and unsuccessful offensive on government troops.
His example, the opportunity and goodwill he wasted, the legitimacy his turbulent rule gave the ?splinter group? Moro Islamic Liberation Front?these continue to weigh down on the ARMM. His successors, even those who were sincere in their convictions, have failed to overcome this burden.
Today, the voters of ARMM have a chance to choose those leaders with a higher chance of success.