Philippines: groundswell of demand for fair election. Role of poll-watching group unclear

With nine days to go before the presidential election, the role of the Philippine independent poll-watching organization is still unclear. The fact that the group's role has not yet been spelled out has intensified concerns that the election will be marred by widespread fraud. During the May 1984 National Assembly elections, Namfrel -- the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections -- policed polling places and organized ``Operation Quick-Count,'' a nationwide computerized tabulation of election results. The program has been widely credited with keeping the 1984 elections relatively honest.

This time, however, Namfrel has not been given permission to conduct quick-count. Instead, the government's Commission on Elections has announced that it would conduct its own count and has invited Namfrel to assist.

The commission is officially said to be impartial, but is widely considered to be influenced by President Ferdinand Marcos. Namfrel officials, the Philippine opposition, and many diplomats claim that most of the election commissoners are beholden to the government. Some of the commission's more junior officials have clear government links. Its chief of operations, who supervises the printing and distribution of ballots, is a colonel from the National Intelligence and Security Authority, headed by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver. (The officer, Col. Remegio Octavio, is also the commission's security chief.)

The Elections Commission says that it has decided to do its own count because Namfrel would be unable to cover the country's 90,000 voting precincts. Namfrel officials say they hope to cover 80 percent to 85 percent of the precincts.

Government officials have also opposed the Namfrel count. During the 1984 election, the ruling party (Movement for a New Society, or KBL) claimed that Namfrel was partial to the opposition and that its quick-count influenced voters by creating trends in favor of the opposition. These claims have not been substantiated.

This time the government is taking a hard line. In a letter to the Elections Commission this week, one of the KBL's top strategists, Leonardo Perez -- now minister of political affairs and formerly Elections Commission chairman -- warned that if a Namfrel count differed significantly from other counts, ``then the political stability of the nation may be imperiled and chaos, if not outright civil disturbances, may be instigated by enemies of the state.''

Election commissioners deny vigorously that their activities are influenced by the President. But one senior commission official with opposition sympathies disagreed. ``I think the President is trying to control our actions,'' said the official. ``Especially with regard to quick-count.''

The commission says that its count will also be backed by computers. In this case, the technical expertise will come from the National Computer Center, a body under the office of the President and directed by a military officer.

One commissioner, Ramon Felipe, has protested this move. ``If there have been some misgivings on the part of some members of this commission on the impartiality of Namfrel,'' the commissioner wrote, ``then the National Computer Center is in a worse position.''

Speed in vote counting is crucial to fraud prevention, experienced observers of polls here say. ``Historically, when there's a delay [in vote counting] you can be sure there has been manipulation,'' says a senior Namfrel official. ``But if you give an early quick-count, it is a very strong deterrent to cheating.''

Delays in vote counting, the senior Elections Commision official said, give a political party time to prepare fake ballots and electoral returns to back its claims of spurious victory.

Commission chairman Victorino Savellano says that the count will take at most three days and denies that the commission's count will be slanted in Marcos's favor.

``We are asking them [Namfrel] to be with us,'' Chairman Savellano said. ``If they have safeguards that they want to see incorporated in the system, then by all means we'll incorporate the safeguards.''

But Namfrel sources remain suspicious of the commission's motives.

``They are stalling,'' says a senior Namfrel official. ``They are hoping that, because of lack of time, we'll be unable to mount the operation.''

Namfrel officials are privately bitter about the commission's moves and say that an open break appears close to happening. The officials say that they are planning to go ahead with their count -- with or without government permission.

This, commission chairman Savellano says, would lead to further doubts about Namfrel's neutrality.

``We should ask them why they do not want to join us. Do they have some motives other than their avowed and professed desire to have clean orderly and honest elections?'' the chairman asked rhetorically.

But the senior commission official quoted earlier voiced suspicions that the new count would be used to assist in fixing the elections.

The count would be used to do what Namfrel was accused of doing in 1984 -- to portray a voting trend in favor of President Marcos, thus providing justification for later victory claims. There would of course be protests, the official said, but the KBL would probably stick to an old precept of Philippine elections: ``Ram through the proclamation of the winning candidate, then spin out the protests.''

Namfrel, which is backed by the business community and the Roman Catholic Church, claims that it will be fielding 300,000 to 400,000 poll watchers and support personnel on election day. But, says one Namfrel official, ``without the quick-count, most of this will be useless.''

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