MANILA, January 14, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - By payment, I refer not just to the P849,167,697.41 in taxpayers’ money that the Commission on Elections has forked out so far for a deal that involves 1,973 automated ballot counting machines. I mean someone must pay for the disaster shaping up with less than four months to election day.

Instead of praying for their preferred candidates to win, devout Filipinos should direct their prayer power toward the holding of honest, orderly and peaceful elections in May.

For as long as I can remember, there has been no honest, orderly and peaceful electoral exercise in this country. But the one scheduled on May 10 promises to be exceptionally dirty, disorderly and violent.

When the biggest scandal at the Commission on Elections was a commissioner stealing a kiss from a colleague, Filipinos could still laugh it off as high jinks in the poll body. Since then it’s been downhill for the Comelec, especially with the entry of Luzviminda Tancangco. The woman should have been impeached a long time ago, but what can you expect from our House of Representatives?

The House, at least, has a much better track record in legislation than the Senate, whose members spend most of their time at taxpayers’ expense picking their noses while conducting useless investigations in aid of election. Also, Speaker Jose de Venecia has a better grip on his House than Senate President Franklin Drilon has over his chamber of horrors.

As for the Comelec, no one seems to have a grip on anything in that poll body. Murphy’s Law reigns at the Comelec: if anything is going to go wrong, it will.

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The Supreme Court ruling yesterday virtually encouraged a criminal indictment of the Comelec commissioners. "Comelec and its officials must bear full responsibility for the failed bidding and award and held accountable for the electoral mess wrought by their grave abuse of discretion in the performance of their functions," part of the 101-page ruling read.

The court was dismayed that this late in the day, the Comelec was still using a demo version of the automation software to be used in May. The actual software, the court learned, was still being developed by Mega Pacific Consortium.

I’m not sure if the Department of Science and Technology is aware of that, since a DOST official said yesterday that in case anyone is still interested, the Comelec computers are working well. The DOST said that of 1,991 machines it tested, only 18 failed but 17 passed when retested. The department said the machines were "100%" accurate.

In a full-page advertisement, the private consortium said data in its machines could not be manipulated for poll cheating. Since the case against the consortium was filed not by a losing bidder but by the Information Technology Foundation of the Philippines, we can assume that disputes over the technological aspects of the deal were settled decisively by the Supreme Court.

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So where are we now? Chin-deep in horse manure, that’s for sure.

Even before the court ruling came out, characters suffering from acute attention deficit such as Linda Montayre were once again crawling out of the woodwork, warning darkly of "no-el" or no elections. Some Comelec officials seem to like the idea, which makes you wonder: Is this scenario Plan B or C of Malacañang? How we love to shoot ourselves in the foot.

The private consortium is going to hang on to that P849 million for as long as it can, you better believe it. No return, no exchange. By the time someone gets back those automated counting machines, they would have become obsolete and the money would have long been spent.

Congress is too busy with the elections and efforts to amend the Constitution so the Comelec commissioners may be safe from impeachment – for the next couple of months anyway. But some individual or group is bound to pursue criminal or administrative charges against certain Comelec officials in connection with this automation scandal.

Hence even as the Comelec scrambles to revert to full manual vote counting, some or all of its top officials could be kept busy defending themselves in court throughout the election period. Chairman Benjamin Abalos should prepare for this possibility.

With this scandal, the Comelec is in danger of approaching the level of notoriety attained by the poll body during the snap elections in February 1986. Does Abalos want this to happen during his watch? Let’s hope not.

With this catastrophe, exasperated Filipinos suddenly find the old manual vote counting an attractive deal. Don’t you think there is a certain charm to tallying votes on blackboards or using pentel pen on brown paper? The whole world will laugh but hey, at least we have free elections. And ballot snatching is easier to catch than computer hacking. Why, Dick Gordon, if he had not left the Cabinet, could have even turned our elections into a tourism come-on, for those who miss the good old days before computers and cell phones.

As for dagdag-bawas, we’ve had a lot of practice dealing with the Philippine version of vote-shaving so maybe it’s now easier to detect and stop.

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All this is small consolation for those who had pinned such high hopes on the country’s first automated elections. Automation was supposed to have been implemented in the national elections in 2001, but Filipinos were busy kicking out a president and dealing with its chaotic aftermath.

This time, what’s the excuse? The Comelec has to account for this disgraceful turn of events and the appalling preparations for an electoral exercise that will decide the fate of this country for the next decade.

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BATTLE OF THE SURVEYS: That was one strange survey that came out yesterday, supposedly showing President Arroyo overtaking Raul Roco and landing in second place among the presidential aspirants, next only to front runner Fernando Poe Jr. There was no mention of the pollster, margin of error, or other important details of a reputable survey, although a reference to Mahar Mangahas of the Social Weather Stations tended to give the idea that it was conducted by SWS.

It looked so much like one of those self-serving internal surveys occasionally leaked to the press by Malacañang, but maybe I’m just imagining things. SWS quickly denied it was behind the survey.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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