Observers dismayed by elections

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — INTERNATIONAL observers said yesterday they witnessed threats and vote-buying inside some precincts in the southern Philippines, raising questions about election manipulation in the unsettled region.

The criticism came as the arduous process of counting millions of votes by hand was under way from Monday’s vote, with fresh violence claiming two more lives in a midterm election the national police chief declared “relatively peaceful.”

The Asian Network for Free Elections, a poll watchdog of 21 regional observers, said some areas in southern Mindanao upheld law and order during the polls, but chaos reigned elsewhere, with intimidation, threats and violence leaving “the general impression that the process is manipulated by outsiders.”

It warned “the culture of impunity for election and political crime could fuel calls for alternative government that can provide justice for the people.”

“Most of us were very surprised by the conduct of elections,” Jessica Tulloch, a Chicago volunteer with the United Methodist Church. “Members of our group were able to actually witness vote-buying taking place inside a precinct.”

She said in southern Marawi city, sample ballots were distributed with small currency notes attached, privacy was scant, and poll watchers were sitting next to voters, whispering to them. “We assume they were suggesting which candidates should be voted.”

“We… also talked to minors who were able to vote several times,” Tulloch said.

The local Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting also reported incidents of vote-buying in Butuan del Norte and Surigao del Sur, and in the town of San Francisco in Quezon province.

“The reported cash offers ranged from P200 to P500 in the suburbs and P700 to P1,500 in the municipalities [of Butuan],” the group said in a report.

It also claimed “intimidation by incumbent officials of supporters of the opposition” in Surigao del Sur, and “harassment of a teacher” in Iligan City.

Filipinos were electing 12 out of 24 senators, all 236 House of Representatives members, and nearly 17,500 governors, mayors and other local officials. Official results are weeks away.

The turnout was projected at three-quarters of 45 million registered voters. Scattered reports of vote-buying and other fraud trickled in, and balloting was postponed in several districts—especially in the south, home to the restive Muslim minority.

Power transformers were damaged in several areas overnight, triggering outages to disrupt vote canvassing, police said. Some places were counting under candlelight.

In northern Abra province, notorious for private armies and unlicensed weapons, unidentified men snatched ballot boxes from one town early Tuesday after causing a power blackout, police Chief Supt. Raul Gonzales said.

The House of Representatives was likely to remain in the hands of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s backers, which would doom any effort to launch a third impeachment bid against her over allegations that she fixed the 2004 election.

Opinion polls showed the opposition certain to keep control of the Senate, where the top 12 vote-getters nationwide will win seats.

Early figures compiled by ABS-CBN television and a quick count by the Namfrel watchdog showed eight opposition candidates and two opposition-leaning independents leading, with two pro-Arroyo candidates trailing behind.

Mrs. Arroyo’s six years in power have been a mixed bag of steadying the economy while lurching from crisis to crisis, including coup plots, terrorist attacks and natural disasters. But disenchantment with her has been offset by a rising stock market and the peso reaching its strongest level against the US dollar since October 2000.