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ANFREL flags VCM issues, vote-buying, delay in resolution of Marcos cases

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) on Wednesday flagged several issues in the 2022 Philippine general elections, including the technical problems involving the vote counting machines (VCMs), cases of alleged vote-buying, and the delayed resolution of presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s disqualification cases. 

In an interim statement released at a press conference in Pasay City, ANFREL acknowledged that the transmission of preliminary results to Comelec's transparency server was "timely and seemingly representative of the will of the Filipino people."

However, the non-government organization noted concerns about its trustworthiness, highlighting the need for it to be "urgently addressed."

ANFREL expressed concern about the failure of at least 1,867 VCMs or related SD cards on May 9—Election Day—which they said is a much greater number than the reports during the 2016 and 2019 polls.

"This led to long queues as machines were repaired or replaced, to some voters having to wait over 12 hours in some cases to cast their ballots, most often in the National Capital Region, and to possible disenfranchisement," Amaël Vier, ANFREL senior program officer for capacity building and international election observation, said.

It warned that these technical issues would "damage the perception" of the 2022 elections for a long time to come, even though only 1.76% of clustered precincts were affected.

ANFREL said the Commission on Elections' communication and contingency measures were "unfitting to the circumstances" as some precincts were not provided with replacement devices for many hours despite assurances that these were only "minor" issues and would be addressed shortly.

"Instead of dismissing calls to extend voting hours, Comelec should also have taken the opportunity to emphasize that any voters who arrived at their precincts by 7 p.m. would be allowed to cast their ballots no matter how late, as they are entitled to by law," the NGO emphasized.

ANFREL lauded voters who decided to hold on to their ballots for hours while waiting for the new VCMs to come, saying their dedication was "truly inspiring."

"It would also be healthy for Philippine democracy to hold a conversation on the right of access to a VCM and voter receipt (voter verifiable paper audit trail or VVPAT), which must also include persons with disabilities (PWDs) and persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), who are usually unable to cast their ballots themselves," they added.

The NGO, however, said they understand the Comelec's rationale behind the option for voters to leave their ballots with the election officers so they can be fed into the machine at a later time while the technical issues are being resolved.

It welcomed the Comelec's statement that the current VCMs will be retired before the 2025 polls, emphasizing the need for greater contingencies in the materials to be used in future elections.

"Automating parts of the election process comes with a great impetus of transparency and reliability. Any failure to deliver these will surely damage the perception of the process among voters and stakeholders, and result in protests and calls for actions like those we have seen since Election Day. Comelec can and should do better to establish a relationship of trust with voters," ANFREL said.

ANFREL likewise flagged the exchange of money ranging from P100 to P2,000 during campaign events.

"In most instances, the persons interviewed did not report the vote-buying for fear of reprisal and because of the difficulty obtaining sufficient evidence," the group said, reiterating the need for Comelec to "proactively address" these issues.

"As of 7 May, Comelec’s task force was investigating only 10 cases of alleged vote-buying, despite widespread pictures and videos spreading on social media alleging wrongdoing from major national candidates. It is unclear however in what proportion the rampant vote buying was successful in swaying the opinions of Filipino voters, who are used to such practices," it noted.

ANFREL also questioned the free distribution of food, drinks, clothing, and other goods, which are in violation of both the Omnibus Election Code and COVID-19 campaign regulations.

They noted the lack of action on the part of the election and law enforcement bodies in implementing guidelines on vote buying and the continued impunity spurred further violations by political parties and candidates.

Moreover, the NGO flagged the use of government resources in support of some candidates, usually the incumbent officials and their relatives, which further "skews" the playing field.

"In several instances, ANFREL directly observed candidates using state-owned facilities and resources or benefiting from the support of uniformed police officers for campaigning purposes, whereas some candidates were prevented from accessing public spaces, as local government units denied or delayed granting campaign approvals," they said.

"The lack of a rigorous enforcement of existing campaign finance laws enables candidates to spend large sums of money undisclosed, spurring a spending race between competitors. As in other areas, without adequate oversight and accountability it is the candidates who do follow the law who place themselves at a disadvantage," ANFREL added.

The online election campaign was also hounded by issues of disinformation and attacks on high-profile candidates, especially against the few women competing for national positions, ANFREL found.

"While social media companies have vowed to take measures against such phenomena, it would be difficult to argue that it was enough given how toxic the online environment has been in the run-up to the elections. More effective regulation, or preferably self-regulation, is needed in order to ensure a more level and honest playing field for candidates in the online space," the group said.

ANFREL also lamented the "severely curtailed freedom of the press and widespread red-tagging," both of which are violations of freedom of expression that "undermine any electoral and political processes."

It also expressed regret over the delays in resolving the petitions for disqualification against Marcos.

The decisions on the four appeals seeking to overturn the dismissal of Marcos Jr.'s disqualification cases and a petition to have his certificate of candidacy cancelled were only released on Tuesday, a day after the elections. 

"Two and half months between issuing rulings on such important issues in both the first instance and the appeal is not appropriate in the midst of an election cycle, even more so given that the ruling on the appeals came out the day following Election Day," ANFREL said.

"In the same spirit of transparency and timely due process, Comelec also should release its criteria for the acceptance or dismissal of party-lists that filed for candidacy in order to improve a process that seems opaque, inconsistent, and hardly understandable to voters," it added.

Further, ANFREL expressed concerns about election-related violence and the killings that took place on Election Day itself, although the polling places that they observed were peaceful and free of poll violence.

It cited the several incidents of shooting involving a barangay captain in Bangued, Abra on April 27; the shooting of supporters of candidates in Magsingal, Ilocos Sur on May 7; the killing of a teacher who was set to serve as an electoral board member in Himamaylan, Negros Occidental; and the disappearance of presidential candidate Leni Robredo's supporter in Quezon.

It also cited the killing of six people in three separate poll-related incidents in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.

"Incidents of election-related violence intimidate and create an environment of fear for the voters, and must be addressed in a timely manner to prevent escalation. ANFREL condemns any and all acts of violence, and calls on the relevant institutions to thoroughly investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence," ANFREL said.

Other issues that the organization has flagged were the insufficient number of staff in each polling precinct, the inconsistent enforcement of social distancing requirements and other COVID-19 protocols resulting in "rare" use of the isolation polling places, the distribution of election propaganda within 20 meters of a voting center's entrance, insufficient measures to ensure the full secrecy of the ballots, and the accessibility of some polling places to persons with disabilities and senior citizens.

Formed in 1997, ANFREL is an international, multi-sectoral, independent and non-political alliance of like-minded organizations that seeks to promote and support democratization in Asia at the national and regional levels.

It has since established itself as the foremost NGO working for democratic elections in the region. —VBL, GMA News