MANILA, January 14, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Many persons have expressed concern that the May 10 elections might be derailed, owing to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision which nullified the P1.3 billion (US$22 million) contract with a fast-tracked private consortium to supply automated ballot-counting machines made in South Korea.

Well, you can’t change the Constitution. The Commission on Elections must now take steps to ensure that the elections be held without fail, even if it entails going back to the manual counting method (like the Americans had to resort to in the crucial State of Florida when the US elections hung in the balance between George W. Bush and Al Gore).

Better the "old method" than to insist on validating what the High Court has already ruled a billion-peso "scam".

Will the Comelec delay matters further by filing a motion for reconsideration? If that body, which has already fallen under widespread public suspicion, does so – the Supreme Court must rule with finality without hesitation. We’re running out of time.

No-el is nonsense, and is not an option.

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Let’s put it clearly: In its 9-3-2 en banc decision promulgated yesterday, the Supreme Tribunal declared null and void Comelec Resolution No. 6074 which had awarded the immense contract for Phase II of the Computerized and Automated Election System (CAES) to Mega Pacific Consortium. Also declared null and void the contract executed between the Comelec and Mega Pacific eSolutions (MPEI) with the poll body ordered to refrain from implementing any other contract or agreement entered into with regard to the project.

What should worry those involved in the annulled resolution and contract is the last paragraph of the 101-page decision penned by Justice Artemio V. Panganiban, which states:

"Let a copy of this decision be furnished the Office of the Ombudsman, which shall determine the criminal liability of any of the public officials (and conspiring private individuals, if any) involved in the subject resolution and contract. Let the Office of the Solicitor General also take measures to protect the government and vindicate public interest from the ill effects of the alleged disbursement of public funds made by reason of the void resolution and contract."

These are very strong words. Anyone who takes the trouble of reading the kilometric but well-written decision cannot help being scandalized by the perpetration by those who pushed through the deal of what is considered to be – in plain talk – scam. A raid on the taxpayers’ pocket!

If you ask me, the utter audacity of awarding that huge deal to what looks like a hastily-cobbled-together consortium is breath-taking. And, in this cluttered permissive, and increasingly shameless culture of ours, they almost got away with it.

Even now, some wretches are plaintively asking: "How will we get back that P1.3 billion?" How, indeed?

What would render the Supreme Court’s decision voiding the contract meaningless is if there is no referral to the Office of the Ombudsman to determine the criminal liability of all those involved in what has just been exposed by the High Court as a mega scam.

Solicitor General Alfredo Benipayo should know what measures to take to protect the government from the ill effects of what the Court has declared "illegal disbursement of public funds by reason of the void resolution and contract." Benipayo used to be Comelec Chairman himself, prior to the appointment to that critical post of the incumbent Chairman Ben Abalos, under whose administration the deal was done.

Those who bluntly expressed grave misgivings about the automated system feel themselves vindicated by yesterday’s ruling. One prominent individual who is thoroughly convinced the "automated system" will spell trouble is former Senate President Jovito Salonga. (Just shows you that Jovy’s main concern, as those whimsical TV ads might imply, is not just how garbage should be collected.) Salonga direly predicted that if the "automatic system" was seen to fail, more disturbances would be provoked nationwide than EDSA Tres.

Even rank-and-file Comelec employees expressed to this writer their serious misgivings about the "new", heretofore untried, automated system – in the worst-case scenario, being clumsily "implemented" on a nationwide basis. There’s no doubt that we must move towards automation and computerization. In the vote-casting and counting we’re still in the Stone Age. But modernization cannot be bulled through at the expense of stubbornly pushing through at breakneck speed, without adequate preparation and credible equipment, something as vital as hotly-contested Presidential, national and local elections.

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All that hemming and hawing on the part of former President Joseph Estrada and his lawyers have attracted adverse publicity internationally. Just consider the TOP banner-headline story (right hand side) of the International Herald Tribune yesterday. The article, no doubt, was also played up in The New York Times, since the IHT, which used to be jointly owned by the NY Times and the The Washington Post, is now exclusively published worldwide by the giant New York newspaper group.

The headline? "Estrada is Shaping Opposition to Arroyo."


Wrote correspondent Carlos H. Conde, datelined Manila: "The Philippine election on May 10 is increasingly being seen as a fight for survival not only for the incumbent, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but also for her deposed predecessor, Joseph Estrada.

"Estrada still wields enormous power, analysts and critics say. Groups who led the anti-Estrada protests in 2001 that pushed him from office accuse him of masterminding political maneuverings that many believe will determine the outcome of the elections.

"Two of the four presidential candidates from the major political parties have direct connections to Estrada, while Arroyo’s party has, Estrada’s opponents claim, struck deals with Estrada in an effort to win over his supporters.

"These connections and compromises, critics of both Estrada and Arroyo say, will eventually lead to freedom for Estrada either through a presidential pardon or an acquittal. Estrada is in prison while being tried on charges of pocketing huge sums of money from illegal gambling during his presidency. That charge, which he denies, led to his downfall in January 2001.

"But even while behind bars, Estrada is said to be a leader of the challenge against Arroyo, who had been Estrada’s vice president. Estrada is a close friend of Fernando Poe Jr., the country’s most popular actor, who is Arroyo’s main challenger for president.

"Opposition groups charge that Poe ran at the behest of Estrada. While Poe denies this, his key political advisers and campaign leaders are Estrada’s political strategists, friends and party allies.

"Poe‘s senatorial line-up is dominated by people identified with Estrada, among them one of Estrada’s sons.

"Another strong contender is Panfilo Lacson, a senator who was chief of the country’s police during Estrada’s term. Although Lacson and Poe are wrangling over which of them can rightly be called the opposition candidate, they essentially come from the same camp. For example, Lacson’s political strategist had also been Estrada’s."

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There’s more down the line in the story: "Arroyo denied she had made any deals with Estrada," the writer pointed out, "by granting Estrada temporary liberty and by transferring him from his prison cell to a rest house."

Well, Camp Capinpin isn’t exactly a rest house, but with Pareng Erap tooling around in a golf cart donated by GMA through Spice Spokesman Mike Defensor, it does sound like a Country Club existence.

Then, what about his Sandiganbayan Special Division salida permit to fly off to the United States for urgent "surgery"? What? No US visa. Until President Dubya Bush clarifies his ambiguous-sounding diktat against granting visas to Chiefs of State with criminal charges pending against them, not just Erap but Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might not qualify for a US visa under the "new" rules. Again, the US Consul General will have to clarify this muddled matter.

In the meantime, the Sandiganbayan is getting embarrassed.

According to correspondent Conde, "Critics said that the fact that three of Arroyo’s candidates are from Estrada’s camp could be a result of deals for his liberty."

The IHT piece underscores that "one of Arroyo’s candidates, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, was Estrada’s fiercest defender during the impeachment trial."

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You have to be a "gee whiz" student of history, on the other hand, to put this nation’s current stupidities and political gamboling in perspective.

When this writer was in High School, one of my favorite authors was an unknown but excellent historical novelist named H. B. Altsheler – a strange name. Fortunately, the old Ateneo library had all his novels of war, adventure, and derring-do. His finest, wonderfully and accurately researched books were about the American Civil War, that terrible conflict in the 1860s in which more than three million Americans savagely fought each other on more than 1,000 battlefields throughout that vast continent, and in which 600,000 American soldiers perished on the Union Side and the rebel Confederacy – while millions of Americans lost their homes, with American cities reduced to ashes.

The "war" in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, for that matter, is just hiccups in comparison to those three years of horrible civil strife in which the issue was, more than slavery, the survival as a united nation of the United States of America.

I still remember the titles of some of those exciting Altsheler novels – The Rock of Chickamauga, The Guns of Bull Run, The Tree of Appomattox, The Blue and the Gray, The Battle of the Wilderness, and Gettysburg.

Inspired by Altsheler, I became a Civil War buff – and even once won a $100 bet in Houston, Texas, against a local rancher (not J.R. Ewing from Dallas) on the disposition of both armies in Gettysburg, the final great battle which decided the war, in my opinion, during Pickett’s famous, tragic, courageous, but futile charge.

The slaughter, the sheer bravery, and the stupidity of generals are deeply etched in that conflict.

I still believe you have to study the Civil War in order to understand what makes America tick today, and the forces that defined America.

He is now revered as the Great Emancipator, and the finest American President. As his biographer Carl Sandburg put it, when he died at the hand of a deranged assassin, Abraham Lincoln was extolled in these words: "Now he belongs to the ages."

Visiting that noble marble statue of his in Washington DC, you see Abe Lincoln immortalized as he deserves, an inspiration to all humanity.

Yet, while he lived, Lincoln was sneered at, denigrated, insulted by the press, dismissed in scornful words by the elite, poked at as a caricature by the political establishment.

His own disloyal Cabinet men intrigued behind his back. Politicians cavorted around him, blatantly posturing and deal-making.

His Gettysburg Address – hastily handwritten by him admittedly – was lampooned by the press. It’s now memorized, at least it used to be, by every schoolboy in America.

That’s how the world turns.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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