As the Senate impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona took a back seat during Congress break this summer, much of the political news dealt with the coming congressional and local elections in 2013. As in every poll, the next elections – 13 months away -are as critical but more so given that the polls for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – considered as a “cheating capital” -will also be synchronized under the country's fragile election system.
On April 10, a citizens' petition to stop the execution of a new deal signed on March 30 between Comelec and technology supplier Smartmatic-TIM was filed before the Supreme Court (SC). The petition, which called for a temporary restraining order (TRO), was filed by the Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch), a broad multi-sector citizens' election watchdog, through nine individuals. The petitioners, who were represented by volunteer lawyer Felix Carao, Jr., were former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Jr., Manila Auxiliary Bp. Boderick Pabillo, Dr. Pablo Manalastas (senior fellow of CenPEG), Prof. Solita “Winnie” Monsod, Dean Georgina Encanto (president of Transparency International- Philippines), Nelson J. Celis, Maricor Akol, Fr. Jose Dizon, and Anna Leah E. Colina of WE Watch.
The petition cited the Comelec for grave abuse of discretion in entering into a new contract with the foreign company based on an “option to purchase” which had expired. Likewise, because the precinct count optical system (PCOS) machines were proven to be defective and fraught with program errors then Comelec should have instead called for a public bidding as the procurement law mandates under these circumstances.
The AES Watch petition was preceded by two similar legal actions filed with the SC on the same day by other groups and reports show more petitions will be filed. But the legal moves are not the only issues facing Comelec as it prepares for the 2013 elections. Based on the numerous lessons of the first automated election in May 2010 – ranging from the technology system's lack of minimum system capabilities such as source code review, voters' verification, and digital signature, as well as machine breakdowns, transmission failures, and voters' disenfranchisement – the glaring concern is how to look for the right technology that is compliant with the automated election law (RA 9369) and with Philippine conditions.
Even if the right technology is found it will address only part of the problem. Given the widespread cases of transmission errors in 2010, it remains a formidable challenge whether the country's telecommunications system and other infrastructure would be ready in 2013. Likewise, by next year more cheats would have developed their secret capabilities backed by powerful connections in order to make election results favorable to them unless accuracy, security, and verifiability safeguards are put in place to plug the system's vulnerabilities.
In June 2011, the country's leading IT groups, practitioners, and scholars, among other multi-stakeholders, gathered for the first Filipino IT for Election (FIT4E) Conference and agreed, among others, to help in the search for an appropriate and Filipino-designed election technology. The FIT4E search, which was organized by CenPEG, AES Watch, and other groups including the office of the UP president, was supported publicly by the Comelec itself, through its chairman. Somehow, the fixation over contracting the same technology provider regardless of its poor record prevailed and this led to the March 30 deal.
Meantime, looming in the election horizon is a build-up not just for the 2013 polls but for the 2016 presidential race. A spokesperson of President Benigno S. Aquino III (Liberal Party), has predicted a split between him and Vice President Jejomar Binay of PDP-Laban. Supporters of Aquino III did not sit well with the inclusion of allies of discredited former president, Gloria M. Arroyo in the senatorial ticket of United Nationalist Alliance (UNA, a new coalition of PDP-Laban and the political party of deposed President Joseph Estrada). (Under hospital arrest, Arroyo has been charged by the Aquino administration of election plunder involving the 2007 elections.) Binay, whose political ascendancy was made possible by Aquino III's mother, the late President Corazon C. Aquino, was asked pointedly whether he still supported the incumbent president.
The falling-out between the presidential and vice- presidential camps speaks of early shifts and realignments of key political forces as they gear for the 2013 elections whose outcome will likely decide the configuration of the presidential contest three years later. Except for the fact that there may be new and old faces in the next elections not much excitement is expected. And this is because being fielded for the congressional and local elections are mainly the same figures that have been in the seats of power over the past 100 years – family dynasties. In recent elections, pro-reform aspirants like Grace Padaca (Isabela), Among Ed Panlileo (Pampanga), and Glenn Chong (Biliran) succeeded in replacing traditional politicians courtesy of organized public support. But their term was cut short in 2010 with the return of dynasty figures they had once unseated. This has generated a rethinking on the viability of reform politics. Right now, the traditional or mainstream political parties have kept their doors closed to political groups and potential candidates espousing politics of change. (More on this in the next Issue Analysis)