Big mess at the Comelec
How bad is the situation at the Commission on Elections? So bad that a goblin from the past has been emboldened to make an apparition to propose its solution to the mess.
With only nine months to go before the May 2016 polls, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, the once-powerful political party of Ferdinand Marcos, has joined other groups in petitioning the Supreme Court to stop the Comelec from implementing automated elections next year. But where previous opponents of the Comelec’s automated election system only wanted the poll body to reconsider its unhealthy dependence on its designated technology partner, Smartmatic and the unreliable precinct count optical scan machines, the long-discredited KBL proposes a radical solution: a return to manual polls.
The KBL says that with manual voting, any cheating can be eventually detected because there is a paper trail, unlike automated voting where the system can be hacked without anyone noticing. It contends that the 1987 Constitution makes no mention of automated polls and therefore, its framers could not have intended elections in the Philippines, now and forevermore, to be conducted in any other manner than manual operations.
It’s easy to laugh at the ridiculousness and epic irony of the KBL’s position. Manual voting and referendums were how Marcos managed to consolidate his rule—and also proved to be his undoing as the February 1986 “snap” manual balloting where he ran against Corazon Aquino would be labeled by the international press as “the rotten elections.” Today’s millions of young voters wielding smartphones and using social media would, moreover, be hard-pressed to believe the idea that the technology they use in their daily lives could not be an ally in lending greater transparency, efficiency and credibility to what has historically been a medium for wholesale fraud, corruption and subterfuge.
Manual voting is a throwback to less enlightened times, and the KBL’s espousal of the position reinforces its political status as a relic of the past. But the fact that the prospect, although laughable, is being resurrected at this time speaks also of a fundamental political problem: the inability of the Comelec to muster enough credibility to hold automated polls that are guaranteed to be accurate, honest and transparent. That image handicap—altogether separate from the capability of the technology itself to make elections in these parts faster and easier—constitutes an enormous hurdle that happens to be the Comelec’s own doing, thanks largely to the actions of its former chair, Sixto Brillantes.
It was the Philippines’ misfortune to have to make the landmark transition from manual to automated polls while the Comelec was under the chairmanship of the petulant, irascible Brillantes. That kind of delicate, trial-and-error period would have occasioned a more open, generous mind from its chief operating officer, but from the outset, Brillantes only had snark and contempt for observers and critics of the automated system to which his office had taken a fancy, against all reasonable objections.
The Comelec’s never-ending entanglement with the fortunes of Smartmatic, which now threatens the viability of a third national election—an unprecedented sour record that would have long ago earned the Venezuela-chartered company the boot if this were any other country—is rooted in Brillantes’ baffling loyalty to it. As calls mounted for the Comelec to scrap the special arrangement with Smartmatic, Brillantes only dug in, giving the company contract after contract that culminated in the onerous P300-million direct-contracting agreement that he signed with it right before his retirement in February. It was as blatant a midnight deal as any, and the Supreme Court rightly voided it two months later.
Despite this bad record, Comelec Chair Andres Bautista has been quoted as saying that his office is “forced to deal only with Smartmatic-TIM on the supply of more PCOS machines,” because other bidders are not keen on the poll body’s set prices. Or can that be due to the perception that the system remains rigged in favor of the Comelec’s longtime favorite supplier? Old habits die hard, and this dependence on one technology company for something as consequential as the exercise of the people’s right to vote has been too toxic. The Supreme Court needs to break this Gordian knot once and for all.
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