Election watchdog calls for independent probe on conduct of poll automation

“Who among the elected and losing candidates from the senatorial to the local level would know how many votes had they really garnered in this election? Or if the ranking of the senatorial candidates and party list groups accurately reflect their true votes?��� – AES Watch

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — How much of the peoples’ money have been misspent by Comelec? Not only did the Comelec receive a still unexplained P30 million (US$723,754) as “counter-intelligence fund” last Feb., it also has yet to answer to the growing list of poll irregularities which, critics said, tainted the election results.

To audit and subject to forensics scrutiny the recent midterm elections, the citizens’ watchdog AES Watch asked this Sunday (May 26) the Comelec and the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on AES to secure all PCOS machines, CCS software, ballot boxes, and other election paraphernalia.

Bulatlat File Photo: Critics spoofed Comelec's Sixto Brillantes and  a Smartmatic rep
Bulatlat File Photo: Critics spoof Comelec’s Sixto Brillantes and a Smartmatic rep

But along with this demand, the election watchdog also pressed Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. to clarify whether its P30 million (US$723,754) counter-intelligence fund (CIF) was used or intended to spy on IT groups and election watchdogs critical of Comelec and Smartmatic and the way the automated mid-term polls were conducted. Indications seem to point to Comelec’s subjecting various critical election watchdogs under surveillance.

This much was suggested by pronouncements of a Malacañang spokesman and of Brillantes himself.

AES Watch spokesman Nelson Celis said, quoting Malacanang spokesperson Abigail Valte, the intelligence fund is intended to spy on “the activities of certain groups, individuals, and technology experts” suspected of sabotaging the elections.” Comelec’s Brilliantes has previously accused AES Watch and affiliate organizations of being election saboteurs, supposedly engaged in a conspiracy.

AES Watch, through spokesman Celis, said Brillantes should “all the more explain whether such intelligence operations are targeting AES Watch, its affiliate organizations, IT groups, other citizens groups, and anti-fraud movements that have been openly vocal against the mismanagement by Comelec of the automated elections since the beginning.”

Last week, amid growing concerns over the suspicious glitches in votes transmission and canvassing, Brillantes had also threatened “to unmask” the leaders behind AES Watch and sue them for election sabotage. The charge is considered a major crime punishable with more than 20 years’ imprisonment. Brillantes’ threat also came after various election watchdogs declared Comelec’s handling of automated polls as a “technological and political disaster.”

‘Beyond decency’

According to AES Watch, Comelec’s tact in response to its questionable handling of the polls “besmirched” the Comelec’s head. Instead of addressing valid concerns, Brillanttes is resorting to threats and intimidation, Celis said.

“The Comelec chief has gone beyond the bounds of decency and fair play. He’s using his powers not only to send chilling effects on the IT community and election watchers. Now, he is using alleged intelligence funds; he is out as well to attack our civil liberties,” said Celis.

Instead of being cowed, the election watchdog expressed regret over the misuse of peoples’ funds. “Brillantes doesn’t have to ask the President for millions of taxpayers’ money to conduct surveillance on us because AES Watch activities, studies and reports have been open and transparent from day one, even before Comelec contracted the foreign company, Smartmatic, to supply the PhP 7.2 billion (US$173.5 million) PCOS voting technology for our elections,” Celis said.

He added that the Comelec chairman had also always been invited to their meetings and forums where Brillantes consistently promised to “look into the issues” and “initiate reforms” in the Comelec.

Probe must begin with Comelec, Smartmatic

Bobby M. Tuazon, policy studies director of CenPEG and co-convener of AES Watch, said if the Comelec chairman is looking for leads on plots to cause election failure, he doesn’t have to go farther. “The removal by Comelec and Smartmatic of all major safeguards and security features of the poll automation system, the repeated non-compliance of election laws, the systematic and widespread glitches, the highly irregular and arbitrary decisions on the RMA (random manual audit), vulnerable CF cards’ physical transport to the NBOC and the premature proclamation of election winners that have cast doubts on the credibility of the election results are what make an election failure, if not sabotage,” Tuazon said.

“Who among the elected and losing candidates from the senatorial to the local level would know how many votes had they really garnered in this election? Or if the ranking of the senatorial candidates and party list groups accurately reflect their true votes?” Tuazon asked.

Calls for an independent probe have been aired by AES Watch, Kontra Daya, progressive partylist groups, Kilusang Mayo Uno, and now also reportedly by CBCP leaders. An independent probe of the elections should begin with an investigation of Comelec and Smartmatic, Tuazon reiterated.

Early last week, leaders of people’s organizations also raised questions on the number of votes canvassed for Partylist groups. Many expressed disbelief, as the Comelec failed to count even their minimum expected “sure votes.”

Tuazon of CenPEG asked why, “After wasting billions of pesos on an untrustworthy machine benefitting a foreign company, millions of taxpayers’ money is being spent to spy on and intimidate IT experts and election watch groups.”

Another AES Watch member, Melchor Magdamo, a former Comelec legal consultant who blew the whistle on the anomalous secrecy folder deal in 2010, proposed that the “probe should begin with the question: Why were the major safeguards disregarded and removed.”

These safeguards range from independent source code review, installation of the industry prescribed digital signatures, voter verification and the WORM (write-once-read many) CF cards, “up to the unconscionable expenses on the unbundled election paraphernalia, warehousing and the PCOS purchase itself.”

Magdamo said “There should be accountability here.”

Aside from the fact that Comelec’s spying on its critics sends a chilling effect in a supposedly free, democratic society, having to ask President Aquino to approve additional budget for intelligence funds also tend to compromise its independence, critics said.

Christian Monsod, former Comelec chairman, also said in a press interview that intelligence funds are a source of graft and corruption “because it is liquidated with a mere statement that it was used for the right purposes.”

The AES Watch, a broad citizens’ election watchdog composed of 40 organizations, had filed on May 3 a Petition before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) against Comelec through the Philippine government for violating the right to vote. Thirty-four individual petitioners led by former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Jr., wrote: “Comelec’s non-compliance of election laws and the defects of the automation system compromised citizens’ right to vote and sovereign expression, under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR.” ()

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