MANILA,  May 18, 2004 (STAR) By Paolo Romero  -  Opposition presidential bet Fernando Poe Jr. renewed yesterday his appeal for sobriety and calm among his supporters amid mounting calls for massive protest actions against alleged widespread election fraud by the administration.

But at the same time, Poe warned President Arroyo’s camp not to push through with its purported plan to "doctor" certificates of canvass (COCs) as "the people will not allow them to succeed," according to his spokesman, Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero.

Poe’s personal campaign manager, Sen. Vicente Sotto III, meanwhile, accused an independent poll watchdog of intentionally setting a trend in its quick count tally to make it appear that Mrs. Arroyo is leading the race.

The President has been widening her lead over Poe in recent quick count results released by the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel).

But Sotto said Namfrel has been deliberately tallying election returns from the President’s bailiwicks while leaving out results from Poe’s strongholds.

"This is too much. Even Namfrel now appears to be part of a grand cover-up of massive cheating by the administration," Sotto said.

Malacañang denied there was systematic nationwide poll cheating. The President also called on the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to thoroughly probe cases of election fraud.

The Senate and the House of Representatives will convene May 24 in joint session as the National Canvassing Board to proclaim the new president and vice president. Congress may finish the job in just over a week.

Poe, standard-bearer of the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP), has reminded his followers anew to remain vigilant in the counting of votes.

"FPJ would like to appeal for calm and sobriety and at the same time vigilance, not only to his supporters but also to the Filipino people especially now that we are witnessing so many incidents of worsening violence in different parts of the country even after the elections are over," Escudero said.

Poe was in "high spirits" and spent the day yesterday meeting with key supporters, KNP candidates and political leaders who updated him on the efforts to stop the administration cheating, Escudero said.

"FPJ wants to get a complete picture as soon as possible on the situation," he said.

The tallying of votes, however, proceed at a snail’s pace due to a number of hassles being encountered by the Comelec such as the absence of the required signatures to make the report official.

Aside from Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos, representatives of all political parties are also expected to sign the canvass report.

Poll watchdog Namfrel is also having difficulties conducting its quick count because of the incomplete information in election returns streaming in.

Escudero said their lawyers were still gathering hard evidence of massive poll fraud but initial reports indicated that the cheating was widespread.

He, however, said they will most likely dispute administration tallies when the joint session of Congress begins canvassing votes.

Poe is not likely to support calls for massive protest actions, he said.

Asked whether the KNP would lead protest actions against the administration, Escudero said: "For us, this is not the right time for such things because according to our tallies, FPJ is leading anywhere between one to two million (votes)."

He said protest actions assume that Poe has not won in the elections, so there is no reason for the KNP to stage them.

Escudero said once Congress starts its canvassing, the KNP will disclose all the evidence it has on the alleged cheating by the administration.

He admitted that the process of gathering evidence is tedious, adding the cheating in the COCs will be done at the provincial and regional level.

Escudero said based on their COCs and unofficial tallies, Poe got 5,380,868 votes while Mrs. Arroyo obtained only 4,709,001 votes.

Citing documents he obtained from Namfrel, Sotto said the Comelec accredited quick count group had suspiciously tallied 62.81 percent of election returns from provinces in Region 7, or in Central Visayas where Mrs. Arroyo is strongest.

The provinces in the region include Cebu, Bohol, Negros Oriental and Siquijor.

In contrast, Namfrel appears to be delaying its tally in known bailiwicks of Poe including the Cordillera Administrative Region, Southern Midanao, the Bicol Region and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Sotto noted that Namfrel was able to tally only 1.36 percent of the votes from Region 2, which includes Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino provinces.

Sotto said according to their own quick counts, Poe has handily won in these provinces.

In the ARMM, which is also known as a KNP bailiwick, the Namfrel tallied only 4.79 percent of the election returns, he said.

Namfrel also managed to record only 6.75 percent of the votes from Region 11 or the Caraga area - comprised of Surigao del Sur, Surigao del Norte, Agusan del Sur and Agusan del Norte - when early reports showed Poe leading in these areas.

Sotto also wondered why it is taking too long for Namfrel to tally the votes from the National Capital Region with only 25.21 percent of the total votes cast having been counted as of yesterday.

He said Metro Manila has been traditionally the stronghold of the opposition.

Escudero asked the Namfrel to finish its quick count to prove that it was not engaged in "trending."

Escudero noted that in the past, Namfrel ends its quick count operations once it is clear to them that there is already a winner in the presidential and vice presidential race.

"We ask them to conduct their quick count up to the end to end speculations that they’re engaged in deliberately showing a trend," he said.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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