Filipinos vote - if their ballots haven't been cast

The incident at one voting center was not the only piece of fraud I saw during Monday's elections in the Philippines, but it was the rawest. It happened in a squatter area known as the Civil Aeronautics Authority, near the Manila International Airport. Not squalidly poor, but dusty and crowded. The voting center was a primary school, a series of wood and concrete buildings spread over a parched field.

Things were pretty suspicious when a colleague and I arrived Monday morning. A local official of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) , a nongovernment watchdog outfit, told us that at least 10 people had turned up early to vote for the 183 seats in the National Assembly, only to find that their ballots had been cast.

We talked to one of these people, a young woman. A month earlier, she said, a local councilor belonging to the KBL - President Ferdinand Marcos's ruling New Society Movement - asked to ''borrow'' her voter's affidavit. The affidavit is the piece of identification a voter must produce before receiving a ballot. Her husband, Sofronio Ocana, said the councilor, a Mr. Kao, had ''borrowed'' 50 to 60 affidavits belonging to neighbors.

Elsewhere in the center there was chaos. Several hundred people had turned up to find that their names had disappeared from the voting list.

Officials were processing voters very, very slowly. In one room, a young man was arguing for a lunch break. He seemed to be in charge. He was also forgetting to mark voters' fingers with ''indelible'' ink as they left. The ink, which was to prevent people from voting more than once, isn't indelible, but it's better than nothing. When I came into the room, he shouted, ''Time out,'' and tried to wind things up. But people kept coming in to vote.

The young man turned out to be the KBL poll-watcher. Asked why he was not applying the ink, he said it had run out. When his attention was drawn to a half-empty bottle on the table, he expressed surprise. ''I didn't notice it,'' he said.

He did not notice the two full bottles in the drawer in front of him, either.

''What I suspect they're doing,'' said Lina de Guzman, a young Namfrel volunteer lawyer, ''is they're trying to drive the genuine voters away. Then they will bring in their own people late this afternoon.''

We returned late Monday afternoon. There was still chaos. But by one shed there was an informal command post. Sammy Aguilar, the mayor's son - a well-built man in his early 30s but shy with the press - was sitting with a bunch of other well-built, nicely dressed men, some of them with walkie-talkies.

The main character with a walkie-talkie - big and muscular by anybody's standards - was Angel. He said he was a scrap dealer. One of his colleagues said he was the mayor's bodyguard.

''He's known for being tough,'' his colleague said. I had seen Angel collecting voters' affidavits. I asked his colleague why. ''He's in charge of that for the mayor,'' he said. ''The others go around and pick them up from the voters.''

The others included a bunch of assorted toughs, an older man who described himself as a simple citizen but turned out to be a KBL councilor, and the school principal. They presumably passed the affidavits to people who could be relied on to vote for the KBL.

Voters were selling their affidavits for 100 pesos (about $7.10) each - several days' wages for most squatter dwellers. Some voters did not seem eager to pass over their affidavits.

I learned much of this while sitting on a school bench with one of the toughs. A burly but nice enough guy, he said he had been working for the KBL ''on these sorts of things'' for eight years. The bench we were sitting on was being used to block an entrance to a voting center. Centers closed at 4 p.m. unless voters in the immediate vicinity signaled their desire to vote. It was only just after 4, but the desire of several people to vote waned rapidly when they saw my benchmate.

''Why are you sitting here?'' I asked.

''They think that maybe people shouldn't go in,'' said the man. They, he indicated with a toss of the head, were the mayor's son and his friends.

The toughs, in fact, seemed keen that counting should start. They began to grumble quietly at the people still trying to get into the voting center.

Sofronio Ocana, the husband of the woman whose vote had been cast for her, came back. He complained to a colleague and the Namfrel lawyer that officials counting the votes were cheating.

The counting was being carried on fairly openly. But opposition votes, he said, were being opened and held up for poll-watchers to see - as the election law stipulates - while votes given to government candidates were only partly unfolded. Sofronio suspected many opposition votes were going to the government.

Ten minutes later I saw Sofronio being shooed away from the mayor's son by Angel the bodyguard. Sofronio's shirt was ripped, and he was angry. He was pushed around a corner and shoved out of the voting compound by the toughs. He came back in. Two of them went for him. One held him, the other hit him.

Journalists intervened. Sofronio, crying, was pulled away. A policeman seemed to be considering arresting Sofronio until it was suggested that there were other candidates for arrest.

Sofronio identified one man as the son of councilor Kao, who had borrowed his wife's affidavit. Another was a barangay (village) official.

Later we tried to talk to the mayor's son and to Angel. Both said they did not see what happened.

''Are you satisfied with the election results?'' we asked.

''Yes,'' the mayor's son said with a smile. The results will be official today.

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