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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Poll group hopeful that ARMM voters will learn to take elections seriously


How does one reform an archaic political culture so ingrained that it makes a joke out of a democratic activity like the elections?

Salic Ibrahim, chairman of the Citizen’s Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms Inc. (Citizens CARE), said the job may be next to impossible but it should not stop one from believing that change can happen.

Formed only three years old, Citizens CARE, a network of non-government and people’s organizations, is spearheading an information and education campaign in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) “to create a new face” of elections in the region.

Poll exercises in the ARMM have been traditionally one big sham: a charade on the right of suffrage, an illusion that people there vote according to their choices, an excuse for voters to earn a few bucks, and opportunity for the local warlords to show who the real boss is.

In an interview last year during the special elections in Lanao del Sur, former ARMM regional education secretary Salipada Tamano said that culture, the attachment to old political system, and poverty have all combined to define the distorted kind of politics practiced in Muslim Mindanao. (Read: “In Lanao, Elections is Harvest Time,”

With title, money, and the security of clans at stake, politicians see their positions not as a form of service but an investment. They will do anything to win the elections, spending a lot and killing rivals in the process.

It is a twisted political culture that feeds on itself. Norie Lao, dean for public affairs of the Mindanao State University, said that elections are generally not viewed as a chance to elect good leaders, or to boot out the bad ones. Simply, voters see candidates and elections as a source of income.

To them, elections provide an opportunity to make quick money. It’s their general practice to accept money from rival parties, with the highest bidder getting the voter’s nod. They cannot be entirely blamed because they have no jobs due to bad governance.

Ibrahim agreed that this prevailing culture is so rooted that any campaign for clean, orderly, and honest elections is like swimming against the tide. “It will involve a totally different kind of acceptance from the voters. But this should not stop us from trying.”

Ibrahim was in Manila recently for a round-table discussion with journalists on Citizens CARE’s preparations for the August 11 elections in the ARMM. The group is seeking accreditation with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) as poll watchdog.

The group, composed of 36 NGOs and POs, is fielding more than 1,800 volunteers to monitor the computerized elections there, seen as a dry-run for the planned nationwide elections computerization in 2010.

The use of automation is expected to temper perennial irregularities committed during elections, but Ibrahim pointed that the “wider and stronger participation” of civil society groups, more than technological advances, provides the ray of hope that change is possible.

While automation may lessen human intervention in the counting of votes, it does not however prevent vote-buying, intimidation, disenfranchisement, and other dirty tricks.
Moreover, election fraud is exacerbated by the lack of a strong citizen’s arm group in Mindanao and the alleged participation of Comelec deputies in the commission of election fraud.

Apart from its information campaign for the automated polls, Ibrahim said Citizens CARE is also trying to inculcate a mindset among the voters “about how important elections is, how important the right to suffrage is in a democratic setup.”

The wider net of NGOs and POs participating this time to monitor the August ARMM elections is one encouraging sign that change maybe achievable, Ibrahim said. The increasing number of groups seeking to engage in clean elections creates “pressure to the election players” to toe the line.

Big poll watchdog groups, like the National Movement for Free Elections and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, have always made their presence during elections in ARMM. But their presence has always been limited.

To bring about some sense of accountability from the candidates, Citizens CARE is conducting forums, which serve not only as venues to discuss issues but also opportunities to impress on the candidates and the voters that the position is for public service and not for self-interest.

He cited as example former Marawi City Mayor Omar Ali, who observed transparency and accountability and engaged civil society in good governance during his term.

Ibrahim agreed that change would not happen overnight, but there is also no reason not to hope. “We are serious in this elections and we would apply any lessons learned in the next elections,” he said.

The ARMM polls will involve around 1.6 million voters, covering 113 towns and 2 cities. At stake are the positions for Regional Governor, Regional Vice-Governor and 24 seats for regional assemblymen.

Comelec will use the Direct Recording Electronic technology in Maguindanao while the Optical Mark-Sense Reader technology will be used in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Lanao del Sur and Shariff Kabunsuan.

Seven candidates are vying for the gubernatorial post while five are slugging it out for the vice-gubernatorial post. Seventy-eight are competing for the Regional Legislative Assembly.