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OAV amendments sought to woo overseas voters

OVERSEAS VOTE. Filipinos in the Chinese province of Hong Kong endure long lines to vote in the 2004 elections. photo courtesy of Daphne Ceniza/ CMA
MANILA, Philippines - To entice more participants in the absentee voting exercise, lawmakers are calling for amendments to the law on overseas voting, including bringing registration centers closer to overseas Filipinos. Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Sen. Manuel Villar Jr. want to encourage more Filipinos abroad by putting up mobile registration centers in areas with huge concentration of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and conducting pre-departure registration in international airports and seaports in the country. Villar is a known OFW advocate and has come out with a series of public advertisements detailing his assistance to distressed migrants. He is said to be hoping for the OFW vote to help him in his presidential bid next year. [See: Months before campaign, politicians test the power of 'advocacy ads'] The bill aims to set up mobile voter registration centers in provinces and cities that are too far away from designated Philippine posts where a Filipino could sign up. In filing Senate Bill 2333, Pimentel hopes registration centers would be set up in countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Canada and the United States where Philippine posts are few despite a high concentration of Filipinos. Robert Tan, an OFW in Edmonton, Canada wrote GMANews.TV to complain that thousands of Filipinos there find it difficult to register for the 2010 polls because the nearest registration center is in Vancouver, which is some 800 kilometers away. “I was so excited when I read about this OAV," Tan said, “but to my dismay, the Consul told me they do not accept voter registration in our area where a few thousand Filipinos are living." A similar problem faces Filipinos in Saudi Arabia where only three posts – Riyadh, Al Khobar and Jeddah – were assigned to process an estimated 1.3 million qualified absentee voters. On top of that, the Department of Foreign Affairs' OAV Secretariat admitted that there are less than 12 functioning data capturing machines that could process the applicants. Since the OAV was signed into law in 2003, figures have not been encouraging. In the 2004 elections, only 360,000 of the more than 4 million qualified overseas Filipinos registered. Of this figure, only 65 percent or 233,092 cast their votes. In the 2007 elections, Pimentel cited records that showed only 503,000 overseas Filipinos registered with a mere 21 percent or 81,732 casting their ballots. “The sharp decline in the actual voting was partly explained by the fact that the last political exercise did not entail voting for the president and vice president," Pimentel added. As of Friday, only 130, 686 overseas Filipinos have registered to vote for the 2010 polls, a far-cry from the 1 million new absentee voters targeted by the government. But even if the DFA meets the target, the Comelec would still trim down the number of voters after a rigorous screening process. With over eight million of them scattered throughout the globe, overseas Filipinos could help decide the result of national elections. But after the dismal turnout of registrants, Pimentel is worried that the OAV will be nothing more but an expensive exercise.
DETERMINED. Although Saudi Arabia is home to 1.3 million Filipinos, only a few thousand registered and voted there in 2004 and 2007. File photo courtesy of Mike Bolos/ CMA
Doubtful Pinoy voters In his recent trip to the Netherlands, Pimentel noted the “prevailing apathy" among Filipinos toward Philippine elections. “I had the opportunity to talk with a good number of overseas Filipinos. The response to registration for absentee voting for the purpose of computerized elections was very depressing," the minority leader said. Aside from fears of jeopardizing their dual citizenship status, Pimentel said many Filipinos are doubtful whether their votes will be counted following the “Hello Garci" controversy in 2004. “I had to tell them that their votes can actually make a difference. If only a significant proportion of overseas Filipinos will exercise their voting right, they can be a swing vote in the presidential, vice presidential and senatorial elections," he said. Beyond the perceived lack of interest in Philippine politics, overseas Pinoys who don’t want to vote seem simply uninspired. Greg Macabenta, a syndicated journalist and national chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, said Filipino migrants have yet to realize that they are a powerful force to be reckoned with in Philippine politics. “Right now, overseas Filipinos still see no one in the Philippines who can inspire them with respect to the 2010 elections," he told GMANews.TV just after Barack Obama won the 2008 US elections. [See: Obama's victory showed overseas Pinoys the power of the vote] The essential principles of electoral participation as well as equality before the law were held by Filipino migrants in high esteem, said a recently published study by German researchers Dr. Christl Kessler and Stefan Rother. However, when they asked 1,000 overseas Filipino worker (OFW) returnees from the Middle East and East Asia, they discovered that while migrants are determined to exercise their democratic right to vote, they also become more critical of the Philippines after having been abroad. Filipinos who come from states, which the Freedom House Index identifies as democratic – Japan and Taiwan – and authoritarian – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong - often feel alienated. “I myself am a Filipino, but I don’t give a damn about this country," a 24-year-old Dubai respondent was quoted saying. - GMANews.TV