Massacre highlights need for early ARMM voting

by Aries Rufo, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Nov 26 2009 06:40 PM | Updated as of Nov 27 2009 03:09 AM

MANILA - The gruesome political violence in Maguindanao has underscored the need to conduct early voting in hotly contested areas, particularly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), election lawyers said.

Election lawyers Sixto Brillantes and Romulo Macalintal said advance voting in these areas would diminish violence and mayhem that traditionally characterize elections there, what with all the resources of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and its election deputies in full force.

“We have been pushing that elections be held in advance in the ARMM and in other hotly contested areas. Up to now, no action has been taken by the Comelec,” Macalintal said.

Brillantes said early voting in the ARMM would allow the Comelec to pour all its resources in the region where failure of elections is the norm rather than the exception. As a result, special elections are always held in many municipalities, a practice which, some say, has become a cottage industry.

“Many in the ARMM would oppose this (early voting) because they will lose a source of income,” Brillantes noted.

Macalintal said election lawyers have been asking the Comelec since the time of former Comelec chiefs Harriet Demetriou and Alfredo Benipayo to hold early voting in the ARMM.

They also presented this proposal as part of electoral reforms with former Supreme Court chief justice and former presidential adviser on electoral reforms Hilario Davide to separate the election in the ARMM using two ballots, one for the local and the other for the national positions.

Macalintal said ballots for the local positions can be counted in the areas where the advance elections were conducted while ballots for the national will be counted only simultaneous with the rest of the country on the regular date of the election.

This will not only prevent widespread election fraud, if not violence, but also foil last-minute attempts by national candidates to tamper with the results of the elections.

ARMM's higher premium

In past national elections, the ARMM area, given its failed elections in many municipalities, has provided the crucial turning point in senatorial races. Of late, party-list groups have eyed the ARMM as a potential source to mine votes to get into the winning list.

Although many of the failed elections are due to violence between warring political families, some failed elections are believed to have been orchestrated. Since the votes there could spell the difference between victory or defeat for those in the border line, the votes for sale get a higher premium from political operators.

“With the implementation of this suggestion, the much talked about buying of votes in Mindanao by candidates for national position and the problem of holding 'special election' would be avoided or minimized, if not totally eradicated,” Macalintal argued.

Brillantes said the Comelec is hesitant to conduct advance voting in the ARMM because of a possible constitutional issue. The Constitution, he says, states that the elections should be synchronized.

Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer, for his part, said he believes that there should be a law allowing advance elections in select areas.

“The plenary power of the Comelec is to hold elections within the parameters of the law,” he told abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak.

The bigger picture

Macalintal, however, strongly disagrees.

He said that the Constitution vests with the Comelec the mandate to ensure the conduct of clean and honest elections.

“The Constitution mandates Comelec to implement all measures to ensure clean and honest elections.  If advance voting will ensure that, I don’t see why it is not within its powers,” he said.

The massacre of at least 57 people, including dozens of journalists, provides a compelling argument for Comelec to implement early voting in the ARMM.

Macalintal said the Comelec should not worry about legal issues. “Let them (critics) question it before the Supreme Court.”

The two pending bills have different views on how advance voting should be implemented. Sen. Richard Gordon’s proposal allows for early voting 10 days before the actual date of elections.

He argued that early voting is observed elsewhere, like in the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez’s proposal, on the other hand, gives Comelec the free hand in determining where early voting should be held. -- by Aries Rufo, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak