MANILA,  JUNE 5, 2004
By PETER J. G. TABINGO  -  After two weeks of heated debates, the 22-man joint committee formally convened at 8 last night to begin canvassing the votes for president and vice president.

In sharp contrast to the past nine days of the joint session of Congress, members of the Senate minority were absent when Sen. Francis Pangilinan and Deputy House Speaker Raul Gonzales (Iloilo) called the committee to order.

Of the five-man Senate opposition contingent, only Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. was present. He was later joined by party-list Rep. Jose Virgilio Bautista (Sanlakas), who was earlier nominated as opposition substitute.

The House contingent showed up in full force.

Sen. Edgardo Angara has reportedly left for Germany while Sen. Vicente Sotto III is spending the weekend in Hong Kong.

The other Senate opposition members, Senators Sergio Osmeņa III, Tessie Aquino-Oreta and Luisa "Loi" Ejercito (alternate member), did not attend.

Upon order of the committee, counsels for the presidential and vice presidential candidates entered their appearances led by former Immigration Commissioner Rufus Rodriguez and former Commission on Election chairman Harriet Demetriou for Fernando Poe Jr. of the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino and Romulo Macalintal for President Arroyo.

Explaining the absence of his fellow minority senators, Pimentel said "they did not expect that the counting would be starting tonight."

Pimentel however clarified that the opposition will not object to the start of tabulation, although he appealed that it be limited to only two certificates of canvass (COCs), those from Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Laos, "in the spirit of fairness."

There were several exchanges regarding Pimentel's petition but Rep. Marcelino Libanan (Western Samar) moved that the number of COCs to be tabulated be set at eight.

Despite his appeal, the committee overruled Pimentel, although by Gonzalez' instruction, the opposition was allowed extra time to examine the COCs.

Over objections from Pimentel, the committee adopted a system of examining COCs by batches of five.

"I think, out of a sense of fairness, considering the circumstances, it should be one COC at a time. We have only two pairs of eyes on our side, we cannot possibly cover more than two COCs at a time. I am all for speeding up the process but I am appealing to your sense of propriety," Pimentel said.

At 8:38 p.m., both the House and Senate contingents, voting separately, approved the Libanan motion.

By pre-designated order, the first batch of COCs opened were those from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Laos, Palau, Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei), the Hague (Netherlands), Sweden, Norway, and Egypt.

The very first COC from Cambodia was immediately objected to by Pimentel on several discrepancies. "It does not bear the signature and thumb marks of six watches. The COC for Cambodia, serial No. 015, would be defective in this regard and could be questioned as to its authenticity and due execution. We are objecting to the canvassing of this COC, Mr. Chairman," he said.

One of Poe's lawyer, Sixto Brilliantes, supported his position but made an additional objection to the fact that none of the lawyers for any candidate was allowed to even touch the COC, nor were documents containing the signatures of election officials furnished them for purposes of comparison.

"This is the first time in over a thousand canvassing I have attended that we are not even allowed to touch the COC. If we cannot touch he paper and see it through the light, we won't be able to establish that there was even a watermark. Our objection, Your Honor, is that the entire procedure as far as the first five COCs is totally in error," he said.

Makalintal, for Arroyo, posed no objection to the admission of the COC.

He explained that the absence or presence of a watermark does not affect the authenticity or due execution of the COC as it was not listed among the requirements under the Omnibus Election Code.

Before the start of tabulation, the joint session opened the remaining 14 ballot boxes. The process ended at 5:22 p.m.

The following irregularities were observed:

* Ballot Box No. 163 from Quezon City. COCs had alterations and the SOVs by precincts was illegible.

* No. 163-A and 163-B, also from Quezon City. SOVs by precinct had alterations, erasures using liquid paper but were initialed by the board of canvassers.

* No. 164, Sulu. SOVs had alterations and there were no SOVs by precinct.

* No. 165, Sultan Kudarat. No SOVs by precinct.

* No. 167, Muntinlupa City. No signatures and thumb marks of the vice chairman and second member of the board of canvassers. The paper seal had no signatures.

* No. 168, Isabela. No SOVs by precinct.

* No. 169, Tawi-Tawi. The COCs had alterations and the SOVs by precinct were not included.

* No. 170, Zamboanga City. The COCs were placed inside an ordinary brown envelope instead of the official Comelec envelope.

* No. 170-A, Zamboanga. No self-locking plastic seal.

* No. 171, Lanao del Sur. The paper seals were not properly attached, the COCs were with alterations or erasures, and there were two broken or cut self-locking Comelec plastic seals.

* No. 175, Valenzuela City. The third copy of the COC which was supposed to be for the provincial board of canvassers was included in the ballot box.

True to his words, Rep. Manuel "Way Kurat" Zamora (Compostela Valley) carried last ballot box off the examination table.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. said "a big burden has just been lifted off our shoulders."

The joint session will resume only when the joint committee submits an interim report for its consideration or when the final report of the canvassing is submitted for plenary debate and approval.

The joint session was suspended around 5:44 p.m.

President Arroyo met with leaders of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente in Malabon City after which she joined a vigil for peace and unity at the Malacaņang chapel.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said it was "normal" for Arroyo to meet with the religious leaders and others who supported her.

Bunye said Arroyo regularly attends the vigil every first Friday of the month.

At least 35 pro-Arroyo multi-sectoral groups led by the Kalipunan at Sandigan ng mga Pilipino (Kasapi), party-list nominee ABA-AKO, and the National Confederation of Tricycle Operators and Drivers Association (Nactoda) held a press conference to echo Arroyo's call for unity.

Activist-priest Fr. Jose Dizon's People's Patriotic Movement or Patriots, which is one of the groups being tagged by the police and military in destabilization scenarios, joined the other groups to prove they are for unity.

Representatives of Bro. Eddie Villanueva and Sen. Panfilo Lacson, headed by Brig. Gen. (ret.) Emiliano Templo of the Association of Generals for Ping (AGPING) participated in the signing of a unity manifesto.

No one represented Fernando Poe Jr.

Rene Lopez, Kasapi national chair, said it was not a partisan activity.

"That why we're calling for all groups ... to set aside their political differences because the nation is already tired."

Lopez vowed to support whoever is proclaimed president. "Whoever wins between President Arroyo and Poe. What's important is for the people's rights to prevail."

Later in the afternoon, at least a hundred Arroyo supporters led by the Kilusan para sa Kapayapaan ay Kaunlaran who were protesting the "turtle-paced" canvass around the Quezon City Memorial Circle were dispersed by CPD policemen in compliance with Mayor Feliciano Belmonte's "no permit, no rally" policy. (With Raymond Africa, Regina Bengco and Wendell Vigilia)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved