The Long View
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:46:00 05/13/2010
A general sense of national glee greeted the conduct and current outcome of our first-ever national automated elections. In one sense I think the glee was entirely justified: we shouldn’t forget that about this time last week was the point of maximum danger, when the Arroyo administration was moving heaven and earth to postpone the polls and thereby plunge the country into the kind of uncertainty it had been trying to foster for weeks. Precisely because it saw the writing on the wall and wanted to buy time to try to maneuver a more favorable outcome for itself.
Public opposition was so widespread that the administration had to throw in the towel and permit the polls to take place, knowing what we’re seeing: not only a national repudiation but also a remarkable series of local repudiations for its allies (Ermita, Esperon, Devanadera, Bolante, Matias and Mike Defensor, Raul Gonzales and son, seem to have been vomited out by the electorate).
But I think we should bear in mind that if getting to vote was a victory, and that the voting system generally worked, the acid test for automation was the transmission of results in a speedy manner and the reporting of the results by the Comelec.
It will still take some time for the Comelec to report on the first stage of automation, how the actual casting of votes went. That is, how many turned out, how many actually got to cast their votes, and of those who cast their votes, how many had their ballots accepted by the machines and how many ballots were rejected.
The overwhelming majority of voters were able to cast their votes, it seems, and for this reason the general conclusion is that the system more or less worked. The same applies to the transmission of results from the majority of precincts. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And here something crucial has been overlooked by the public and the media, it seems to me.
In a race where there’s a wide gap between the winner and the first runner-up, automation matters less, simply because the things automation is supposed to help deter—a slow and inefficient count prone to fraud and doubts over the outcome—aren’t very relevant. A case in point was the wide margin between Joseph Ejercito Estrada and Jose de Venecia Jr. in 1998, one widely expected by the electorate itself going into the election and which was so large a margin as to be fraud-proof.
The justification for automation was the controversial count in 2004 when the two leading contenders went into election day with neither one sure if they had an insurmountable lead. It was in such a situation that vote padding and shaving efforts had time and the chaos and confusion of a slow, manual counting of ballots on the side of the manipulators.
As it turned out, going into this year’s elections, the public had a pretty good idea of the expected results in the presidential contest but the vice-presidential race was obviously going to be too close to call. And it is in such a situation that the present automation has demonstrated its partial successes and its potential flaws.
By midnight of election day over half of the votes had been transmitted to, and reported by, the Comelec and its appointed watchdog. This was enough to satisfactorily convince most presidential candidates that the public had expressed its will at the polls—and that the Comelec’s system had generally reported the results in a conclusive manner. And so most presidential candidates conceded to Benigno Aquino III the day after the polls closed.
But not so fast and so thoroughly as to convince Joseph Ejercito Estrada who prefers to withhold comment on the results at this point. From Tuesday to mid-Wednesday, the Comelec got stuck at reporting 78 percent of the precinct results which was, apparently, still not a conclusive figure for Estrada. But the general impression seems to be that the public views the presidential contest as settled.
The same does not apply to the vice-presidential race which remains too close to call as I write this. The race was tight between Manuel Roxas II and Jejomar Binay going into election day, and the lead of Binay as reported has to be tempered by the realization that they include much of Binay’s core strength in the NCR and Balance Luzon while the overall figures still lack significant portions of Roxas’ Visayan bailiwicks. The clincher possibly being whether these Visayan bailiwicks could significantly affect the initial Binay lead. Furthermore, in a real squeaker of a race, the outcome of Mindanao voting will also matter.
Neither the Visayas or Mindanao results should be cliffhangers at this point if automation—particularly the transmission of results to the Comelec’s national office—were an unqualified success. Again: the proof of the success and validity of automation doesn’t depend on contests where winners enjoy big leads, but in close races where time is on the side of both political operators and public skepticism over the eventual results. Too long a delay can only foster precisely the kinds of doubts that can be fatal to the credibility of the mandate of the eventual, official, winner.
As it stands, I don’t see how a messy 2004-style situation can be avoided, with the vice-presidential contest potentially getting bogged down all the way to the Presidential Election Tribunal. It will take maximum statesmanship from both the eventual winner and loser to avoid turning this failure of the system into a festering bone of contention over the next six years.
It may be that the next 48 hours will tell whether glee will turn into dread.
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