Arab News Newspaper: A Gigantic and Tragic Potential

A Gigantic and Tragic Potential
Manuel L. Quezon III

Close on a week after voting for Overseas Filipino Voters began, the news hasn’t been very good. There were the early birds: The first overseas voter was Nicanora Maglinis in Palau. Second was Rowena Dela in Hong Kong. But the 70,000 OFW voters in Rome have been the focus of much of the news, because the ballots haven’t arrived (the Philippine embassy there held a seminar on how the voting works only last Sunday, when voting had already started). On the other hand, OFV voting, according to our ambassador to the EU, seems to be enthusiastic in Belgium and Luxembourg, but no figures have been given (all we know is that in Antwerp alone, 1,500 Filipino seamen will be voting).

It’s interesting that in Hong Kong, one group, Migrante, said voter turnout was low even though workers enjoyed their day off during that period. A press report put the figure at 235 on Saturday, and 700 on Sunday, or less than a thousand out of the 96,505 registered OFV’s in Hong Kong. If voters won’t vote when they have a day off, how much lower is the chance they will, during a work day? With a 30-day voting period, at that rate, only a third of Filipino voters in Hong Kong will bother to vote. The response, again according to Migrante, has been underwhelming compared to 2004, when 4,000 Filipinos voted on the first day of overseas voting. In that election, 65 percent of overseas Filipino voters cast their ballots. So far, the weekend resulted in the following global figures: Only 896 voters showed up on Saturday, while 1,049 showed up on Sunday to cast their ballots. Some 275 have mailed their ballots.

There’s the usual blame game going on, with Sen. Richard Gordon pointing the finger at the Commission on Elections, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo saying the reason voting is low is because the whole process is such a hassle. All the he-said, she-said in the news, is of course because everyone knows that OFV figures are nothing to sneeze at.

The numbers this year are significant: 504,122 registered Filipino voters, including 18,404 seafarers, can vote overseas. Saudi Arabia has the biggest chunk of the OFW vote: 127,947 voters; next is Hong Kong with 96,505. The UAE has 35,304 registered voters. This year, mail-in ballots will comprise a sizeable chunk of the total vote: 174,832 voters are entitled to receive and mail back their ballots through the postal system; while 329,278 will cast their ballots personally at our embassies and consulates.

OFVs can only vote for two kinds of candidates: Senators and the party-list. In either case, Filipinos overseas can make a difference. In 2004, the last two elected senators, Manuel “Lito” Lapid and Rodolfo Biazon only had a difference of 335,000 or so votes; and between the last placer, Biazon, and Robert Barbers, there were only less than 12,000 vote difference. Filipinos in the UAE alone, could potentially make or break a senate candidacy; Saudi Arabia or Hong Kong could put a candidate safely in a Senate seat. And put together, OFVs could make or break party-list candidacies. If even half of the overseas voters all voted for a party-list, it would be enough to get one seat in the House of Representatives. Theoretically, if all OFWs voted for just one party-list, they would get two seats in the House. For example, in 2004, some successfully elected party-list parties were Anak Mindanao with 269,750 votes or 2.1204%; Citizen’s Battle Against Corruption with 495,193 votes or 3.8924%; not to mention the other, more prominent parties such as Anakpawis, Akbayan, and Bayan Muna.

But all this assumes two things: First, that if you’re an OFV, you’d want to vote. Second, that even if you voted, your vote would be properly counted.

To return to the first day voting figures for the Middle East, this is what’s been reported: 100 out of 18,448 in Dubai; in Abu Dhabi, only 140 out of 16,856 registered voted on the first day. In Saudi Arabia, only 303 out of 127,945 voted, while in Doha, 31 out of 11,493 registered voted. In Oman, there were 10 out of 3,380 and in Bahrain there were only seven out of the 5,100 registered. If these numbers keep up, lack of OFV interest will be proven true.

The reason that there are already those saying OFV voting will be a flop, is that these low numbers have been accompanied by statements, whether to the press, or in text messages or emails and phone calls to friends and family, that things will be rigged, anyway. A friend now working as a driver in Saudi Arabia recently texted me, updating me on his situation, including his being unhappy over the increasing strength of the Philippine peso (less money for his family in Sorsogon). I asked him if he intended to vote. No, he replied, he wasn’t registered. Were his co-workers going to vote? No, he said, it would be difficult considering their schedules. And finally I had to ask, did he even care?

No, he said, and he told me why. His experience has been lining up, filling out forms, paying fees at home so he can work abroad. And not one candidate, he said, has stepped forward to say that the fees would be lessened, the paperwork reduced, the process made if not easier, than at least a little nicer. No candidate at home, he said, has bothered to contact him, or even his family in Sorsogon, and his experience, he claims, isn’t all that different from the experiences of his fellow workers. His attitudes, he says, are shared by many of his coworkers, too.

The truth is, there are about 10 million Filipinos abroad, about 11% of our population. Of these, at least 1.3 million are officially Overseas Filipino Workers, according to our government, while other sources put the numbers of Filipinos abroad as follows: 3,187,586 stay abroad permanently, 3,599,257 stay abroad for work contracts, and 1,296,972 stay abroad irregularly (without proper documentation), which make a sum of 8,083,815. In Metro Manila, for comparison, there are 5.7 million registered voters; in Cebu Province, 1 million. Our workers overseas working illegally alone, equal the voters in all of Cebu!

So if half a million actually registered potential voters is impressive, it pales in comparison with the numbers - in the millions - who aren’t, either because they can’t, or they won’t register to vote.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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