MANILA,  May 26, 2004
By Nikko Dizon  -  Opposition leaders slammed an unnamed official of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) yesterday for prematurely disclosing that President Arroyo won in the May 10 presidential vote.

They said the move was illegal and contrary to their own count showing that their candidate movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. won.

A top Comelec official, who asked to remain anonymous, disclosed Monday that Mrs. Arroyo beat the popular actor-turned-politician by a narrow margin, based on a secret count of official election returns.

The opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) described the premature disclosure as "outrageous" and continued to allege widespread electoral fraud and cheating by the government.

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos admitted making a personal tally of the election results but denied leaking the information.

Sen. Vicente Sotto III, KNP campaign manager, suspected the disclosure was "part of Malacañang’s mind conditioning" to cover its alleged plan to rig the outcome of the recently held elections.

"We know the real count. The figures the Comelec announced have already been manipulated," Sotto said.

Poe campaign spokesman Francis Escudero said KNP lawyers were looking into the leak and warned it could "cause confusion in our country at this time."

"It might undermine the authority and power granted to Congress to canvass and count the votes for president and vice-president," he said.

The Comelec official said the tally gave Mrs. Arroyo an unassailable lead even though the official count from the May 10 polls was ongoing and must still be ratified by Congress.

Under the Constitution, only Congress sitting as the National Board of Canvassers counts votes for president and vice president.

"It’s very irresponsible," Poe’s lawyer, Harriet Demetriou, told radio station dzRH, adding that in her personal tally, Poe won.

She said Abalos should face possible legal charges as head of the agency responsible for the disclosure. Other critics called for Abalos’ impeachment.

"He has no respect for the Constitution and no respect for the position that he has. He has shut the credibility of the Comelec by showing partiality," Demetriou said.

Congress was to approve rules for the vote count Tuesday and try to proclaim the winner before the June 30 inauguration amid threats by opposition politicians to challenge questionable ballots, which could hamper the process.

Abalos has said his commission was responsible for counting the votes for senatorial candidates, but also kept track of the presidential votes, which appear on the same election documents.

The Comelec announced the 11 winners of the senatorial race and proclaimed them late Monday. The 12th slot is being contested by fellow administration re-electionist Senators Robert Barbers and Rodolfo Biazon.

Abalos admitted making his own tally of the votes for president and vice president but said he could not announce the results publicly because that is Congress’ sole responsibility.

He denied making any such disclosure to the media, saying reporters took a peek at a tally that he made when they visited his office.

A formal announcement by Congress on whether US-educated economist Arroyo or film star Poe has been elected is expected in mid-June.

The unnamed Comelec official said the count showed Mrs. Arroyo with 39.5 percent of the vote to Poe’s 36.6 percent. The margin of Mrs. Arroyo’s lead was more than 900,000 votes based on initial results from 173 of the 176 electoral constituencies, the official added.

Two areas — Sarangani province and Cotabato City — remain to be counted, but they do not represent enough votes to affect the outcome, the official said.

Mrs. Arroyo also was leading Poe by more than 740,000 votes in a government-sanctioned but unofficial "quick count" by the election watchdog National Movement for Free Elections. Namfrel has tallied more than 60 percent of 216,000 election precincts.

Namfrel chief Jose Concepcion said Abalos and other Comelec officials should be investigated by Congress. "They have no business to do a tally at all," he said.

Another election watchdog, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting said the disclosure could make matters worse "in such a critical situation."

Other Comelec officials defended Abalos. Commissioner Resurreccion Borra said they "know the Constitution and the law well enough not to violate it."

Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, did not comment on the disclosure but hoped Congress could proclaim the winner quickly.

He said the Arroyo administration was "concerned about the effect of a protracted canvass upon our political and economic stability."

The KNP has warned of a "people power" revolt if Poe is cheated of victory.

Poe last week said Mrs. Arroyo had robbed him of victory through fraud and his supporters have warned of massive protests.

Asked if he would recognize a winner proclaimed by the administration-dominated Congress, Poe said last Sunday however he would, "if it’s an honest election."

But he and his supporters have claimed they have evidence of massive fraud and would not allow Congress to count questionable election documents, threatening to impede an already notoriously slow count.

The Arroyo administration has warned it would use force against protesters who attempt to disrupt the counting.

The looming standoff has caused concern in a country with a history of political turmoil and military restiveness.

Analysts predict some sort of confrontation and say the recriminations could continue to hound Mrs. Arroyo if she is proclaimed winner by a narrow margin.

Ballot boxes from across the country were transferred from the Senate building in Pasay City to the Batasang Pambansa complex in Quezon City under heavy guard where the formal count is expected to begin as soon as lawmakers agree on rules on how the count should be conducted.

The election campaign and aftermath have been dogged by bitter allegations of mass fraud, cheating and other irregularities as well as allegations that elements in the armed forces were plotting a coup.

Mrs. Arroyo, who came to power after a military-backed popular revolt unseated Joseph Estrada in 2001, is seeking her own six-year mandate. She had a small lead over Poe in voter opinion polls leading up to the elections. — With Jose Aravilla, Evelyn Macairan, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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