Ink controversy stains hopes for a clean election in the Philippines

Another blow has been dealt to hopes of a clean election this Monday in the Philippines. A fraud-prevention technique using American-made indelible ink - intended to stain a voter's finger and thus prevent multiple voting - has turned out to be not in the least indelible.

Officials of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), an unofficial watchdog body, say that 10 minutes' cleaning with rubbing alcohol - available at drugstores for about 80 cents - will remove all trace of ink.

Namfrel suspects a dirty trick. ''Someone pulled a fast one,'' said a Namfrel official.

The opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos's government is more blunt in voicing its suspicions. It accuses the official Commission on Elections (Comelec) of deliberately procuring ineffective ink.

''Comelec imported fake ink because they did not intend to implement the election law,'' said Rene Espina, secretary-general of the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO), the largest opposition group.

Despite its slightly comic air, the ink story touches on a basic issue in the May 14 National Assembly elections: ''flying voters,'' people paid to register in a number of precincts, and who will vote several, perhaps several dozen, times.

Namfrel estimates that there are about 2.5 million flying voters in the country - 10 percent of the electorate. There are strong suspicions that most flying voters are organized and paid either by candidates of the ruling KBL (New Society Movement) or by the movement itself.

Earlier this year, an official of the United States Federal Election Commission, William Kimberling, dropped by to see Joe Concepcion, head of Namfrel.

Mr. Kimberling had advised a number of Latin American countries, among them El Salvador, on election proceedings. He suggested to Concepcion a number of antifraud measures, including indelible ink - or, as it is known in the trade, ''election integrity solution.''

Kimberling suggested a US producer of the solution, Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories of Raleigh, N. C.

Namfrel then lobbied Comelec to buy the ink. After some delay, Comelec agreed , saying it had been considering the idea for months, anyway. An order for 300, 000 was placed with Sirchie. The US Embassy helped with telex communications between Comelec and Serchie, says one Comelec commissioner.

Namfrel sources say that when the ink arrived in Manila on April 23, Comelec seemed loath to let them have samples of it, saying it did not want the ink leaking out into unauthorized hands.

Namfrel volunteers were able to obtain samples of the shipment over the weekend. It was then they discovered the remarkable effect of rubbing alcohol on ''election integrity solution.''

Namfrel gave Comelec a demonstration on Monday night. The election commissioners seemed shocked, Concepcion said. ''I'm not sure if they were surprised at the ease with which the ink came off,'' said a Namfrel official, ''or if they were surprised at being caught.''

Namfrel was able to find a local manufacturer able to make a more effective substitute. Comelec agreed to buy this, Concepcion says. Then, he claims, it began to vacillate.

The late discovery of the ink problem meant that by Thursday afternoon, at best 40,000 bottles - just about enough for Manila - could be manufactured and produced by Monday, Concepcion says.

Thursday night Comelec officials said they would not be buying any new ink.

Commissioner Noli Sagadraca told this correspondent that the present ink still left small stains around cuticles. And the commissioner hinted broadly that Concepcion, who found the replacement manufacturer, may have had financial motives for suggesting a replacement.

Comelec's rather slow response to the ink problem seems to be part of a pattern. The theoretically comprehensive new election code provides for vote-counting to be supervised by a committee composed of three people - a local teacher, a representative of KBL, and a representative of the dominant opposition party.

The snag has been with the definition of the dominant oppostition party in each area. Originally Comelec recognized a number of groups which UNIDO claimed were either fake opposition or existed only on paper. UNIDO appealed, but Comelec has yet to hand down a decision.

Comelec expects to finish its review by tomorrow or Saturday. By then, says UNIDO's Espina, ''We won't have time to get our organization in place.''

Without the representation at the vote-counting, Espina says, UNIDO has no hope of getting its candidates elected.

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