Escalating the watch

Media Coverage,Press April 6, 2013 12:37 PM

Source: Inquirer.net (Published 14 April 2007)

MANILA, Philippines—Just as the technology of cheating in the elections has graduated from such crude tactics as buying votes, using guns and goons to intimidate opponents and voters, and stealing and stuffing ballot boxes to more sophisticated mechanisms like “dagdag-bawas” [vote-padding and vote-shaving] at the municipal, city and provincial canvassing and even to manipulation at the highest levels; the response of civic, religious and educational sectors to these technologies has itself been evolving.

One such “step up” approach has been the formation of LENTE, or Legal Network for Truthful Elections, which is the first nationwide network of lawyers, law students, paralegals and other trained volunteers out to perform two tasks: to monitor the canvassing of tallied votes in cities, municipalities, and provinces around the country; and to provide legal services to members of the Network during the election period.

So while groups like Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) field volunteers at the precinct level to guard the integrity of ballots and the conduct of elections, as well as the tallying of the votes, Lente will take off from where these groups leave off and monitor the canvassing of votes. “Those who intend to cheat at this level will at least be aware that there is a new player watching them,” notes former Commission on Elections chair Christian Monsod, one of the convenors of LENTE.

To be able to monitor canvassing at all levels, LENTE aims to gather around 10,000 volunteers, at least 9,600 (3,200 lawyers and 6,400 law students/paralegals, trained volunteers) to monitor the canvassing of votes in 1,600 cities/municipalities and 81 provinces around the country; additional lawyers as LENTE coordinators at the local level; additional lawyers, law students and other volunteers to monitor canvassing at the national level and to provide legal services at the national level; and more volunteers to provide support and assistance to the volunteer monitors during the canvassing process.

The 10,000 LENTE volunteers will, it is hoped, join one million Filipinos who will be part of VforCE, or Volunteers for Clean Elections.

Volunteers can undertake any of four components of this unprecedented campaign “to protect the integrity of the elections, fight fraud and violence, and work for long-term political and social reform.” The four components are: voter education and involvement; poll watching; the Citizens’ Vote Count; and the Canvassing Watch, which LENTE shall oversee.

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LENTE is itself an impressive network, co-convened by Jose Vicente Salazar, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and Carlos Medina Jr., chief legal counsel of One Voice and executive director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center. Among its 28 (as of last count) member organizations, aside from the IBP and One Voice, are the CBCP-NASSA, Namfrel, PPCRV, the Code-NGO Bantay Canvass, lawyers’ groups, academic institutions and law student councils.

In the coming weeks, say organizers, Lente will be conducting training sessions on election laws and procedure at national, regional and provincial levels. Why the need for a new organization composed primarily of lawyers and law students when groups like Namfrel and PPCRV have been doing poll duty for two decades now? “These volunteers watch the polls mainly at the local, precinct level,” explains Monsod, whose orientation to poll watching took place at the founding of Namfrel for the 1984 elections. “Our LENTE volunteers will be the ‘fresh troops’ when canvassing begins, when poll watchers will already be so tired from their precinct work.”

This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with some friends who debated whether the “good old-fashioned” means of cheating–buying votes and fielding flying voters, ballot box snatching, ballot box stuffing, misreading ballots, mis-recording votes—would still be used at the precinct level.

While some said these have been rendered void by the alleged “institutionalization” of cheating, others said precinct-level dirty tactics would still be resorted to, especially by operatives of local candidates. Monsod agrees with the last point. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” he quips, noting that where there are no watchers, cheaters will rush in to take advantage of the situation. Which is why there is a need for volunteers at every level of the voting and counting, he adds.

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THE GATHERING of one million volunteers for poll watch duties, says Monsod, is also one way to address the “alienation and disengagement” of many Filipino youth, who have grown so cynical and frustrated at what they perceive as widespread fraud attending our elections that they choose not to vote or even register at all.

“We cannot withdraw from the system,” declares Monsod. “Like it or not, much of our lives is affected by what government does, and so we have a big stake in the choice of people in our government. We must do all that we can to ensure that our choices prevail.” Which may explain why just taking time to choose candidates and trek to the precinct to vote is not enough. Good citizenship in this country, in this day, demands vigilance and volunteerism.

Monsod himself believes that overall, the 2004 elections were conducted properly. “Among 18,000 positions at stake, there were less than 500 that were contested,” he says. “This means that the Comelec people especially at the local level performed their work well, despite poor leadership,” he adds.

Of course, among those “contested” positions were the presidency and the vice-presidency. The most telling sign of the true state of our democracy is that more than 20 years after EDSA People Power I, our poll watching efforts are not abating any, but are instead escalating just to match the speed and sophistication of those who would steal the vote.—Rina Jimenez-David

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