Cablegate: Grp Preparations for the August Regional Elections

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (U) This message is Sensitive but Unclassified -- Please
handle accordingly.

2. (SBU) Summary: With just over two months to go until the
August 8 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim
Mindanao (ARMM), there are indications that the Commission on
Elections (COMELEC) may not be able to implement an automated
election as was its plan. The Supreme Court has yet to rule
on a COMELEC petition that requests use of electronic
counting machines impounded by the Court in January 2004
because of procurement irregularities. A Supreme Court
source recently told Acting Polcouns that there was little
chance that the Court would allow COMELEC to use the
machines, however. COMELEC officials insist that it could
still conduct the ARMM election manually. Another
possibility is that COMELEC may recommend to Congress that it
postpone the election. Through a grant to the International
Foundation for Elections Systems (IFES), the USG is helping
COMELEC and NGOs prepare for possible ARMM election
scenarios, as well as longer-term electoral reform. In light
of the controversial May 2004 election, the GRP and COMELEC
are eager to use the ARMM election to show that improvements
have been made in the electoral system. So far, however, the
jury is still out as to whether the GRP will succeed in
running a successful election. (Septel will review the
political horse race under way in the ARMM and the potential
impact of the elections on the peace process.) End Summary.

COMELEC Preparations

3. (U) COMELEC, the independent GRP electoral body, is
currently preparing for the August 8, 2005, elections in the
ARMM. (Note: ARMM voters will elect a governor,
vice-governor, and representatives to the 24-member Regional
Legislative Assembly. The last ARMM elections were held in
November 2001.) COMELEC had planned to use the ARMM
elections as a test case to automate voter registration, the
vote count, and the transmission of voting results, with an
eye toward nationwide automation for the 2007 mid-term
elections. Between January and March 2005, COMELEC
registered thousands of new voters for a new total of 1.3
million voters in the ARMM using a new computerized biometric
registration process. The new system enabled COMELEC to weed
out more than 100,000 duplicate registrants.

4. (SBU) COMELEC, however, still faces a significant legal
barrier in trying to automate vote counting for the ARMM and
future elections. Although COMELEC purchased 1,991 vote
counting machines in April 2003, the Supreme Court in January
2004 invalidated the contract awarded to Mega Pacific
Solutions, a South Korean firm. The Court found that COMELEC
did not follow the law nor its own bidding regulations in
letting the contract and noted "glaring (technical)
deficiencies" with the machines that might compromise
vote-counting security. The issue remains at an impasse,
with the Supreme Court insisting that COMELEC return the
machines, and Mega Pacific refusing to take them back for a
refund. In December 2004, COMELEC petitioned the Supreme
Court, requesting permission to use between 200 and 300 of
the machines for the ARMM elections. While the Court has yet
to make a ruling, a Court source told Acting Polcouns on May
16 that there was little chance the Court would release the
impounded machines.

5. (SBU) A negative Supreme Court decision would represent a
setback to COMELEC's automation plan, but COMELEC insists
that it still would be able to conduct the ARMM election
manually. "With two months to prepare, we can handle a
manual election," Commissioner Rex Borra said in a May 16
meeting with poloff. However, Borra added that COMELEC was
also considering the possibility of recommending to Congress
that it postpone the ARMM elections if the Supreme Court
denies COMELEC's petition. Borra reported to poloff that
COMELEC must decide by June 1 whether the elections will be
automated or manual in order to make adequate preparations
for either scenario.

6. (SBU) In early May 2005, Mission also sought to
facilitate contacts between the GRP and Election Systems and
Software (ES&S), a U.S.-based company that deals in election
software and equipment. The referral came in response to the
Philippine government's expression of interest in leasing or
buying voting machines should the Supreme Court deny COMELEC
the use of the impounded machines. Sources in Malacanang
indicated to poloff on May 17 that the government is not
inclined to pursue the ES&S option, however.

7. (SBU) The View from Mindanao: Poloff and DRL officer
visited Zamboanga City in Mindanao on May 10. Attorney Helen
Flores, COMELEC Regional Director, told poloff that COMELEC
headquarters in Manila was, at present, exercising tight
control over preparations for the election. She added that
COMELEC's local staff in the ARMM was now minimal and that
the COMELEC headquarters planned to send additional personnel
only shortly before the election is held. COMELEC will cover
the ARMM elections from three main offices in Mindanao,
specifically Zamboanga City (for the island provinces of
Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi), Iligan (for Lanao del Sur), and
Cotabato City (for Maguindanao). (Note: FYI -- Zamboanga,
Cotabato City, and Iligan are not part of the ARMM, though
they serve as entrepots for commercial and governmental
activities in the region.) On May 16, COMELEC commissioners
Borra and Garcillano indicated to poloff that the
commissioners had not agreed on assignments for covering the
election, but that they would divide up responsibilities
soon. A likely scenario, according to Borra, is that five of
COMELEC's seven commissioners will each cover one of the
ARMM's five provinces, one will handle media relations, and
Chairman Benjamin Abalos will coordinate the entire effort.

Civil Society Preparations

8. (U) At least two civil society organizations -- the
Consortium on Election Reforms (CER) and the Parish Pastoral
Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) -- are working in the
ARMM to conduct voter education drives, and possibly election
monitoring, for the vote on August 8. Both are umbrella
groups, representing networks of other non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), and in PPCRV's case, local dioceses of
the Catholic Church. In coordination with COMELEC and PPCRV,
CER will hold a conference on voter education in Cotabato
City in mid-June, 2005. The conference will bring CER's
network together with other local NGOs, PPCRV, and COMELEC.
The goal is to forge agreement on a voter education strategy,
divide geographic areas of responsibility, and conduct
training for the voter education drive. IFES -- which is
supporting the CER voter education drive under its USAID
grant -- told poloff that PPCRV and its network will likely
be able to cover effectively areas of the ARMM where
Christians reside in large numbers, leaving CER to
concentrate on Muslim areas. (Note: Muslims represent a
large majority of the population of the ARMM; the rest of the
population is Christian.) IFES, CER and PPCRV say voter
education will relay basic information on how the election
will be conducted. It will also inform voters of their duty
to vote responsibly and the importance of elections to

USG Assistance

9. (SBU) Through USAID's grant to IFES, the USG has also
supported an information technology review of COMELEC's
modernization program. The review, which IFES carried out
from May 4-13, also presented COMELEC with options and
recommendations for the conduct of the ARMM elections. IFES
consultants remarked that some of COMELEC's preparations
would improve the ARMM elections' conduct, regardless of
whether the elections are automated or manual. Two of the
most important improvements, according to IFES, include
COMELEC's cleansing of the voters' list through its biometric
registration and its decision to use a new ballot. The new
ballot eliminates the old format where voters had to write in
the name of their candidates. (Note: Write-in ballots have
been more vulnerable to misinterpretation and fraud in past
elections.) COMELEC will be able to use the ballot in either
a manual or automated election scenario.

10. (U) Mission also plans to send teams to observe the
elections. Mission is also looking into the possibility of
supporting independent election observation teams through
such organizations as the National Democratic Institute and
the International Republican Institute.

11. (SBU) In light of the controversial May 2004 election,
which was marred by charges of fraud, inaccurate voter lists,
and tabulation delays, the GRP and COMELEC are eager to use
the ARMM election to show that improvements have been made in
the electoral system. So far, however, the jury is still out
as to whether the GRP will succeed in running a successful
election. While automation would help, it is not necessarily
a prerequisite for a successful election. However, COMELEC
-- which has been stung by past charges of inefficiency and
corruption -- clearly has to get ready to implement a plan
providing for manual balloting given that it seems
increasingly unlikely that automated machines will be
available. In light of the degree of confusion, there seems
an outside chance that the elections might be further
postponed, though this is not an option the GRP would prefer.
(Note: The elections were already postponed once from their
original date of November 2004 to August of this year.) The
good news is that USG assistance is helping COMELEC
prioritize its efforts. Moreover, the USG-assisted voter
education effort appears to be moving forward in positive
fashion thanks to the efforts of key NGOs. Mission continues
to urge GRP interlocutors to focus on making the ARMM
elections a successful model that can be replicated in future

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