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🇵🇭 How almost everything went wrong
And how determined voters will save the day
It’s Election Day+2 in Manila and I think I’m only running on San Miguel Light and Ice Americanos now.
We still have a lot to talk about when it comes to the presidential election fall-out, and we’ll get there. I really wanted to write today about the very bumpy road the actual vote itself had. I spent yesterday at the office of COMELEC, the Commission on Elections, which has become a prime target for those accusing it of completely fumbling the poll. I thought it was going to be Jakarta-style (get that toothpaste out, fellas!) but it dispersed for a march through the old town of Intramuros.
One thing is clear, this is just the beginning of a very long era in the Philippines.
Stay safe, everyone
It’s around 48 hours now since I set out across Makati to visit a voting precinct. I headed to Pio Del Pilar which is both walking distance and had been experiencing many problems which were later found to be far, far wider than just this one enormous school:
I found the end of the queue and walked along with it as it snaked up and down streets, splitting in some parts to let bikes through until I reached the school gates which served as the ID check area. It took me 20 minutes to walk. Granted, I did wonder at one point if my organs were being poached by the sun and slowed down, but still. The people stayed for hours, there and across the country. A fellow-foreign friend said she wasn’t sure she agreed with democracy enough to do that.
Social distancing restrictions, the country had been warned in advance, would extend wait times further than in previous elections. That sounded reasonable but photo and video reporting show social distancing was rarely enforced. Instead, journalists, social media users and regular voters reported en masse that voting precincts were ill-prepared for the sheer number of voters. This is supported by the interim statement from the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) released this morning in Manila.
This slap-dash was exacerbated by reports of broken or failing vote-counting machines (VCM) across the country. Anfrel data found only 1.67 percent of precincts were affected by this, but stories quickly went viral of voters opting to wait up to 12 hours to put their ballots through rather than wait and trust poll workers to do so when up and running.
“Automating parts of the election process comes with a great impetus of transparency and reliability. Any failure to deliver these will surely damage the perception of the process among voters and stakeholders and result in protests and calls for actions like those we have seen since Election Day,” Anfrel said in its statement.
It’s not an idle concern. ‘EDSA’ shot to the top of Twitter trending list (and hasn’t gone anywhere) as returns for the national vote came in, but it’s even more pressing local level elections which can and did turn violent quickly. Anfrel points to Philippine National Police data which found 16 cases of election-related violence from when the campaigning period began 9 January, including shooting deaths on election day. I will not be surprised to see that number climb a little in the coming weeks as this shakes out a little more, but I hope I am wrong!
In addition to the violence, Anfrel found the “election campaign also took place in the backdrop of severely curtailed freedom of press and widespread red-tagging, two violations of freedom of expression that undermine any electoral and political processes taking place under such a context.” And that’s not even to mention the hideous state of social media mis- and disinformation campaigns that have worked to undermine social cohesion for years leading up to Monday.
I was really interested in what the team said about vote-buying. In Indonesia, the other Southeast Asia country with which I am most familiar, vote-buying is an enormous issue but also a bit of a gag that sees voters pocket cash and then votes their conscience. (That is an extreme simplification, Burhanuddin Muhtadi’s Vote Buying in Indonesia is currently ZERO DOLLARS on Kindle)
In the Philippines election, vote-buying is absolutely rife but amplified by a lack of privacy and secrecy. “The arrangement of voting precincts and the placement of desks in close proximity with each other resulted in voters often being unable to cast their ballots in full secrecy,” Anfrel found. Further, underusing ‘secrecy folders’ and the placement of VCMs within some precincts added to the undermining of secrecy.
Anfrel pointed to instances of poll-watchers and community members “inside and outside the precinct” able to clearly read a voter’s ballot. This practice puts the Philippines much further behind others in the region: “There is no reason that the Philippines lag so far behind other Asian countries when it comes to protecting the fundamental right to secret voting.”
This means, said one Anfrel analyst this morning, that ‘checking’ a return on investment when it comes to vote-buying would be extraordinarily easy. Still, it remains very difficult to prove. Even with loads of social media footage and some of Anfrel’s own observers witnessing vote-buying, finding evidence is near impossible. Similarly, it’s so deeply entrenched that there is no political incentive to reform financing laws if both the vote buyer and the receiver ‘benefit’ from the norm.
This election was touted as the game-changer for the Philippines. It was going to go down in history as the one in which two dynastic authoritarian names were elected in an enormous landslide.
But something else has broken. The national results are exactly what the polling and surveys said it would be, and to be explicitly clear in the national races there is no indication of widespread fraud. But the perception that this election failed, that hundreds of thousands spent an entire day in the hot sun and may never be sure if their vote really made it into a VCM hours later or were told they were too late to vote at all, is far more fundamental to Filipino democracy.
“Mass participation is the highlight,” Anfrel Secretary-General Rohana N. Hettiarachchie said of an otherwise very bleak election.
“We need to salute some of these voters who waited hours and hours. People do not trust the system. Each and every vote is important, you cannot exclude anyone if you want a democracy.”
The entire press conference is available on Facebook. The first 10 or so minutes have some busted audio issue, but all good from then on and definitely a valuable look at Monday’s election.