MANILA, January 20, 2004 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - With a scandal-plagued Comelec, can we still expect a clean election?

The official kick-off of the campaign season is being violated by most of the candidates. Campaigning is supposed to be prohibited until February 10, but already everything is being polluted by politics and premature campaigning.

The President herself, under less than artful dodges, has been on the campaign trail for months – and her next stop is Hong Kong to coincide with Chinese New Year and a big gathering of El Shaddai.

What about the Commission on Elections punishing such violations? No way.

The Comelec commissioners, led by Chairman Ben Abalos, are already looking like wet chickens with regard to the P1.3 billion "Mega" scandal, which was slapped down, though still being ritually "reviewed", by the Supreme Court.

The question in the minds of many is: How can the Comelec be expected to conduct fair and honest elections when it has been bedeviled by non-stop scams, or the suspicion of scams, for the past three years? The Mega Pacific embarrassment comes hot on the heels of the mega-bucks Photokina controversy, also involving the procurement of equipment.

Then there was the recent impeachment move against Comelec Commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco, which created sensational headlines. Tancangco, who’s retiring soon, barely "survived" (in a sense) that brouhaha – but, in the public mind, there are still many questions. Ironically, the casualty of that clash over crooked wheeling and dealing was the honest, earnest and highly-principled former Comelec Chairman, Justice Alredo Benipayo, who was literally eased out of his Chair, to be replaced by veteran politico (trapo?) Ben Abalos of Mandaluyong and the MMDA.

Benipayo was, of course, given the face-saver of being appointed Solicitor-General. Do you think the forces of "good" had triumphed in the poll body?

Ironically, it is his detractors and noisy Photokina advocates, Commissioner Sudain, Lantion, Javier, and until her retirement Luzviminda T., who may cast the deciding votes on the question of Fernando Poe Jr.’s (alias Ronald Allan Poe’s) qualifications as "natural-born" to run for the Presidency of the Philippines.

Make no mistake about it. Everybody believes – although "private" lawyers are questioning his qualification, along with the "legitimacy" of his birth – that the GMA Government is behind FPJ’s persecution. Iginuhit na naman ng Tadhana. President Glo may declare in her most cheerful tones that she believes FPJ’s a true Filipino, but c’mon, everybody is convinced that this is just play-acting.

What intrigues me is the surfacing of National Archives Chairman Ricardo Manapat to testify about Ronnie Poe’s case in the Comelec. Manapat is obviously an Administration man – through and through. He got his plum position through the . . . eh, usual backers. Most people don’t realize how powerful and, I won’t say potentially lucrative, being head of the National Archives is. A crook in that post could, if he were corrupt, certify, if I’m not sadly mistaken, that battalions of illegal aliens or foreign TNTs are "truly" Filipinos by razzle-dazzle of the computer records and documentation. Titles can appear or disappear through wizardry in that office. I’m not saying Manapat or his boys are doing anything as detestable as that – but the National Archives has that kind of kamandag.

Is this Ricardo Manapat the same fellow, or just a namesake, who wrote Some are Smarter Than Others during the Marcos dictatorship, and did a sledgehammer job against the Cojuangcos. And published a scandalous newsletter called The Smart Files?

That scurrilous black propaganda newsletter disappeared when its victims started shooting back, such as former Manila Mayor and ex-DILG Secretary Fred Lim, who sued Manapat and Smart Files for criminal libel – and who knows what an outraged "Dirty Harry" might, in addition, have done? When you’ve got a good man, and a good shot, literally gunning for you, discretion is the better part of valor, perhaps.

Is this the same Manapat who was "very close" to General Joe Almonte? Verrry interesting.

* * *

On the question of flawed "voting technology" (like those Comelec counting machines?), the International Herald Tribune yesterday also ran a verrry interesting editorial.

In fact, the editorial headlined, The Betrayal of US Voters, occupied the entire space dedicated to the newspaper’s opinion.

The IHT, which is published worldwide, belongs to The New York Times, and therefore its views reflect those of the influential New York daily, rated one of America’s Top Three in clout.

The editorial asserted: "The morning after the 2000 election, Americans woke up to a disturbing realization: the United States’ electoral system was too flawed to say with certainty who had won. Three years later, things may actually be worse."

In sum, the editorial dredged up the opinion, held by some, that owing to confusion in Florida, the victory of George W. Bush over former Vice President Al Gore remains iffy.

"If this year’s presidential election is at all close, there is every reason to believe that there will be another national trauma over who the rightful winner is," the piece continued, "this time compounded by troubling new questions about the reliability of electronic voting machines."

"This is no way to run a democracy," the IHT Editors declared.

There you are. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Comelec’s automatic machines (hastily imported from South Korea) are flawed, not just the procurement itself, why does the Comelec still try to insist on those "iffy" machines being utilized? Is somebody already programmed to win? Or to lose?

As the IHT editorial pointed out, "Americans are rightly proud of their system of government and eager to share it with the rest of the world. But the key principle behind it, that leaders govern with the consent of the governed, requires a process that accurately translates the people’s votes into political power. Too often, the current US system falls short."

Our idolatry of high-speed electronic vote-counting, it’s evident, is being questioned and seriously doubted in the homeland which pioneered that technology.

* * *

The editorial mordantly states: "Most immediately obvious is the problem of voting technology. An accurate count of the votes is the sine qua non of a democracy, but it is an ideal that continues to elude the United States.

"As now discredited punch-card machines are being abandoned, there has been a shift to electronic voting machines with serious reliability problems of their own. Many critics, including computer scientists, have been sounding the alarm: through the efforts of a hacker on the outside, or a malicious programmer on the inside, or through purely technical errors, these machines could misreport the votes cast.

"There is a fast growing list of elections in which electronic machines have demonstrably failed or have produced dubious but uncheckable results. One of the most recent occurred, fittingly enough, in Palm Beach and Broward Countries in Florida just this month. Touch-screen machines reported 137 blank ballots in a special election for a state House seat where the margin of victory was 12 votes. The second-place finisher charged that faulty machines might have cost him the election."

Last month, the international daily recalled, FORTUNE magazine "named paperless voting its ‘worst technology’ of 2003."

What happens, indeed, if a "recount" is required, when there is no ballot record on paper?

This writer is no expert, but I’ve been screaming those same caveats for the past year. We cannot have Hackers Inc. on the outside, or Grease-monkeys on the inside, deciding the coming Presidential and national elections.

* * *

With campaigner like Senatorial candidate (on the FPJ ticket) Johnny Ponce Enrile, as his promoters, Poe doesn’t need detractors. He doesn’t even have to be "disqualified" by the Comelec. La Gloria is in excelsis. With JPE praising FPJ as possibly "a new Marcos", Enrile will destroy FPJ.

Frankly, it was disappointing to many of his admirers that Ronnie Poe didn’t have the backbone or the savvy to reject Enrile (who’s more ancient and creaky than the Ancient Mariner, and heavier than his Albatross) from his ticket, or Jinggoy Estrada. Indeed, Poe’s Senate slate – with two or three notable exceptions – is a monumental disappointment. That Gang offers not a New Deal but the same Raw Deal of Old to our exhausted Filipino people. FPJ’s only consolation is that GMA’s Senate ticket is no better.

This early though, it’s not a good sign that FPJ – who’s the hope for progress and reform for many, not just the masa or the mahirap ni Erap – is demonstrating weakness in decision-making and matters of choice. He’s got to show more backbone and sagacity behind his shy smile and glamorous dark glasses.

As for Enrile comparing FPJ to Macoy, sanamagan. He is no character reference. JPE became an EDSA "hero" by accident. He fled to Camp Aguinaldo with his band of loyalists, including RAMrod Gringo Honasan, not for principle or idealism, but because he feared being crushed by his erstwhile Martial Law boss, the Dictator Marcos, who had accused Enrile and his RAMboys of plotting to overthrow him.

During the first hours of uncertainty and nervousness, JPE confessed to the world press and local journalists that he had "faked" the ambush of his own car to give Marcos an excuse to declare Martial Law in September 1972. JPE confessed to having rigged the Cagayan elections to ensure the victory of the Marcos pangkat, and a plethora of other "sins", before Eddie Ramos joined him in defying Marcos, and His Political Eminence Jaime Cardinal Sin rallied the EDSA "People Power" barricaders to "save" him. That’s the long and short of it.

Now we have an unrepentant Enrile damning FPJ by praising his own former nemesis Marcos and comparing FPJ to that departed, unlamented late despot.

With friends like JPE, Panday, you don’t need enemies.

* * *

THE ROVING EYE . . . US Ambassador Frank Ricciardone Jr. was whisked out of Manila by Washington, DC because, among other things, there was a confirmed terrorist plan to murder him – by Islamic thugs. So there. They’ll deny it, naturally. In fact, when US President Bush came to Manila, he had Ricciardone’s bulletproofed BMW changed to a more heavily-armored Cadillac. The "excuse" trotted out at the time was that the American envoy had to showcase an American-manufactured car, not a foreign import. Finally, it was deemed necessary to get Ricciardone "safely" out.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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