MANILA, FEBRUARY 16, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Expecting the shortcomings of manual counting, Malacañang called on the public to be vigilant and major stakeholders to get involved in efforts to ensure a clean and honest conduct of this year’s elections.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the electorate and candidates themselves should help in compensating for the possible shortcomings non-automated elections.

He pointed out the Arroyo administration has long been pushing for automated polls but was forced to revert to manual counting after a government inter-agency advisory body decided that automated polls for the May 14 elections are not possible due to lack of time.

Bunye reiterated Malacañang’s call for a pre-election summit by stakeholders to thresh out problems arising from the manual counting of elections results.

"Ensuring honest, orderly and peaceful elections is precisely the reason why we’re asking the stakeholders to attend the summit. We are thankful that there has been a positive response. So we hope that these questions could be ironed out during the summit," Bunye said.

"Citizens participation will definitely be a big plus and this I think will be the essence of the election summit," he said.

Last week, a planning meeting was held with Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo being tasked by President Arroyo to organize the summit.

Saludo explained Malacañang is not taking charge of the meeting but merely organizing it.

He said the summit is expected to review preparations for the May polls as well as the reforms suggested by former Chief Justice and Comelec chairman Hilario Davide Jr. as Presidential Adviser on Electoral Reforms last year.

Among those expected to participate in the summit are the Department of Education (DepEd); the Presidential Legislative and Liaison Office; the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP); the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the citizens poll watchdog group accredited by the Comelec; the Philippine National Police (PNP); the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel); National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP); the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches; and the Ulama League of the Philippines.

Bunye, on the other hand, stressed Malacañang became disappointed over the decision to revert to manual counting of the votes but "this is one of the realities we have to contend with." The best thing is vigilance – Namfrel Namfrel chairman Jose Concepcion added the best thing to do is for everyone to be vigilant in guarding the votes to ensure clean and honest elections.

Concepcion supported the decision of the Comelec’s advisory council to revert to manual counting of the votes.

He said the advisory council had apparently taken notice of the fact that poll automation is no longer possible due to lack of time and preparation.

Concepcion said it would be better to wait until all the necessary preparations are made for an automated election process.

Concepcion pointed out the main problem in forcing an automated election in May would be the people’s lack of knowledge on the new voting procedures.

But despite the reversion to manual voting, Concepcion said cheating could be discouraged since the opposition and concerned sectors had apparently learned how to secure the canvassing and other election documents necessary to protect the votes at the precinct levels.

He said the government would have to prepare for the poll automation as early as now if it would want a modernized election next time.

Despite a law passed to allow the pilot testing of automated election system, the advisory council said Comelec would not have enough time to determine the most suitable package or the "off-the-shelf technology" for automated elections. ‘Concrete timeline’ The Comelec, on the other hand, called on poll automation advocates to provide a "concrete timeline" within which the modernization program should be implemented.

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez pointed out poll automation should not be done haphazardly because it could only lead to disaster.

Jimenez said the Comelec also lack-ed the time to train personnel to implement the automated poll system and to educate the public on the new voting system.

He said the Comelec had estimated that it could take six months to train personnel on the new system. –With Aurea Calica, Sheila Crisostomo

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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