Philippines: strife rises over differing vote counts. Vote-count standoff expected to bring protests

A credibility contest between two different presidential vote counts threatens to push the Philippines into civil strife. The strife -- mainly street skirmishes since the Feb. 7 election -- began to escalate yesterday, as large crowds gathered in the nation's capital to watch the National Assembly's final tally, slated to begin today.

Both novice opponent Corazon Aquino and 20-year incumbent Ferdinand Marcos are seeking to sway opinion -- in Washington as well as among the 54 million Filipinos -- toward accepting two advance tabulations of ballots. In these separate and still-incomplete ``quick counts,'' the primarily government-appointed Commission on Elections (Comelec) put Mr. Marcos slightly ahead, while the independent National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), put Mrs. Aquino out in front.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, Mr. Marcos said the count of the Comelec-sanctioned Namfrel will ``strain the fabric of our political life.'' Aquino, his opponent, already claims victory.

A vote-count standoff, with Marcos physically and politically barricading himself in Malacaang, the presidential palace, is expected to bring out mass protests as threatened by Aquino before the election.

``Then the question is: How much steam will Filipinos let off, and will the military fire upon crowds who reflect the massive support for Aquino?'' said Ricardo Romulo, Namfrel counsel. ``The temperament of the Filipinos is either passive or violently mad. I don't know of any mass political act in our history which was nonviolent civil disobedience.''

Marcos says he will order ``maximum tolerance'' by the military toward any ``illegal'' demonstration.

A leader of the 700-member military reform movement (known as RAM), which claims a majority of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and quietly favors the opposition, points to several cases during Friday's vote when RAM members were cited by NAMFREL for preventing ballot manipulation in several areas.

The RAM leader, who asked not to be identified, said an Air Force pilot complained to him about being ordered to seed clouds with silver iodide last Tuesday to bring rain upon the final Aquino rally in downtown Manila. It didn't work. Instead, rain fell the next day on Marcos's final rally.

Also, in a move seen to be helping Aquino, RAM successfully persuaded 747 cadets of the Philippine Military Academy to send out 10 letters each to provincial officials last month pleading for honest and fair elections.

Namfrel General-Secretary Christian Monsod said military men were among the worst election law violators. Two Namfrel workers were killed in the voting process among an estimated 103 to 115 fatalities during the two-month campaign and election period.

An example of what's been happening in a number of vote-counting locations occurred Friday at an elementary school in metropolitan Manila's city of Makati:

In the low-income neighborhood of Guadalupe Nuevo, voting was a chaotic affair for most of the day, ending in a violent confrontation.

In the four-story school, most of the classrooms were set up for the hundreds of voters from various precincts. (Voting took place from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.)

The process was long, difficult, and frustrating for many voters. Each room had four people participating in running the voting: an election official, a member of the ruling party (known as KBL), a member of the opposition party, and a Namfrel volunteer. All but the Namfrel volunteer had separate keys for each of the three locks on each ballot box.

Crowds were large, quiet, and clearly eager to vote. An estimated 10 percent could not find their names on voter registration lists. Namfrel officials claimed that this allowed for so-called ``flying voters'' recruited by the ruling to skew the tally for Marcos.

(This reporter discovered one registration list in another district that showed 211 registered voters living in one small house.)

Early in the voting at Guadalupe Nuevo, as well as in all of Makati, Namfrel volunteers began to report harassment by KBL followers and began to leave their posts. A shooting incident at Guadalupe Nuevo created much tension in the schoolroom.

Namfrel Chairman Jose Concepcion, a local businessman, arrived at the school to investigate and found a spent bullet casing, which he showed to the television cameras throughout the day as ``proof'' of ``goons'' intimidating voters and Namfrel. He then went to a nearby church where nearly a thousand Namfrel workers had gathered. He rallied them, saying ``voters are looking to Namfrel for help.''

They marched a mile en masse to Guadalupe Nuevo, arriving just as the voting was ending at 3 p.m. At the same time, at least six men, allegedly KBL followers, entered the school wielding sticks and guns. Many election officials fled, while others, including nuns, barricaded classroom doors or clung to ballot boxes. The concern: that KBL supporters would switch ballot boxes during the ensuing commotion.

In a tense confrontation, the Namfrel group stormed up some stairs to confront marauding men. Chairs were thrown, and for several minutes, the crowds scattered in fright. They quickly regrouped, with many seeking a fight. Namfrel lawyer Romulo succeeded in leading them in the Lord's Prayer, then in singing an opposition song, ``Bayan Ko,'' meaning ``My Country.''

``There is enough violence,'' Romulo yelled to the tense Namfrel crowd. ``Let's show them that we know how to behave. We are for democracy, not mob rule. By standing here, let's show that `guns, goons, and gold' do not intimidate us. We are the people. We are the masters of this government and this country. Let us act in a rational manner -- not like the goons that they [the KBL] have sent here.''

By 3:30 p.m., Concepcion had found several policemen who helped him ``pacify'' the classroom, chasing the men from the school.

No one was arrested. But the vote-counting was in a state of anarchy and confusion, and the Namfrel leaders tried to help Comelec officials restore order (in between interviews with American TV reporters).

One problem surfaced: Many people who held keys to ballot boxes had fled. Concepcion also found a policeman carrying out an early vote tally for the mayor of Makati.

Later, Marcos accused Namfrel of being ``most active'' in violating the election law.

``When you see a nun grabbing a ballot box, that is an illegal act,'' Marcos said.

To conduct its own ``quick count,'' Namfrel had tallies telexed to its headquarters.

In metro Manila, Namfrel workers delivered tallies, signed by each precinct's election official, to Namfrel headquarters. ``These tally sheets are well hidden for safety's sake,'' said Vicente Jayme, vice-president of Namfrel.

It is those Namfrel tallies and similar tallies made by election officials in classrooms all over the Philippines which are now the focus of attention this week.

``It's up to the people to decide who to believe,'' said Namfrel General-Secretary Monsod.

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