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Harrison Ellis - Blog 4: My Experience as a Foreign Election Observer in the Philippines

Harrison Ellis - Blog 4: My Experience as a Foreign Election Observer in the Philippines

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During this blog entry I provide some details about my experience as a Foreign Election Observer. I talk about the work faith-based and grassroots organizations are doing to alleviate issues within the democratic process, discussions with rival candidates, and my team’s observations of the electoral process in the Philippines. 

From  13 – 17 May 2013 I had the privilege of volunteering with COMPACT for Peaceful and Democratic Elections. COMPACT is a consortium of civil society organizations accredited by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). I was part of a delegation called Team Bantay, consisting of 30 delegates from 16 different countries that included the likes of professionals, academics, activists, parliamentarians, and students. International Observer Missions (IOMs) were deployed to six different “political hotspots” throughout the Philippines. These hotspots included Masbate, Pampanga, Cebu, Cagayan Valley, and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindinao and were selected based on the following criteria:

-       A history of election-related violence;

-       High levels of voter intimidation;

-       High levels of vote buying;

-       High levels of electoral fraud;

-       A presence of political dynasties; and  

-       The ability of authorities to guarantee our safety.

Overarching priorities included assessing the effectiveness of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines and to determine whether current president Benito Aquino’s anti-corruption stance would translate into a safer and more credible election. I was part of a team of six inspiring delegates from the Netherlands, USA, Denmark, as well as a strong team leader from the Philippines. Our team was deployed to Daanbantayan in Northern Cebu. We conducted interviews with civil society organizations, upwards of 10 incumbent and reformist candidates, local authorities, members of the COMELEC, and engaged with both local and national media. On 17 May 2013, we reported our findings at a national press conference where representatives from each of our embassies were present and submitted a final report to the COMELEC and to the diplomatic corps that included our observations and recommendations on how the transparency, efficiency, and security of Philippine elections could be maximized.

While in Cebu City, a fellow IOM and I interviewed Father Diola, the man behind the I Vote Good campaign. I Vote Good is a faith-based but non-partisan campaign that takes a spiritual approach to addressing vote buying, a pervasive issue that undermines the democratic process in the Philippines. Father Diola deconstructed several strategies commonly used by society to justify vote buying. One was to receive money but vote with one’s own conscience. This is been a strategy since 1971 but vote buying continues to remain at epidemic levels.  Father Diola said that culturally, Filipinos want to return favours and that to not return a favour carries a strong sense of shame. So, when a candidate gives out money expecting a vote return, the average voter has no other means to repay this “favour” other than by giving the candidate their vote. To many people, voting with your conscience means to vote with the candidate who has given you the most money. Another oversight people use is that they do not want the money to go to waste. Father said that he combats this by preaching, “Do you want to obey money, or God?” To the average Westerner, this strategy may seem a bit weak. But in the Philippines where Catholicism is so prevalent, the effectiveness of this approach should not be underestimated.

Father Diola developed a LASER test to determine which candidates are the best to vote for. Voters should scrutinize Lifestyle, Action, Supporters, Electoral conduct, and Reputation of candidates before placing their vote. This strategy is being used in over 40 dioceses and has contributed to the downfall of several political dynasties. The I Vote Good campaign led me to realize the amazing work that civil society organizations are doing to alleviate corruption in the Philippines. The significance of faith-based organizations advocating for issues outside of the Catholic Church’s formal agenda is also noteworthy.

The interviews we conducted with candidates informed several observations that were reported to the COMELEC. Political dynasties are alive in well in Northern Cebu. Personally, the presence of political dynasties became more tangible after leaving Manila. In the municipalities we visited, almost everyone was living in poverty except for the politicians who were wearing designer clothes, living in luxurious homes, driving hummers, and sending their children to American universities.

While almost all candidates agreed that while vote buying should be stopped, most attested that it was part of the Philippine political culture and that it was something in both sides were participating. Vote buying also does not necessarily have to occur in a monetary fashion. Candidates also provide supporters with food and other materials. One incumbent mayor had even produced a health card with medical benefits that was issued only to supporters.

There were some acts of violence in the area, such as the shooting of a woman who was supporting a candidate. While there was no logical connection between the shooting and the election, both opposing candidates used the shooting as political fodder.  Having both sides accusing each other made analyzing acts of political violence between two rival parties difficult. The local media also reported the shooting to be “election related” but when our team interviewed the local police and viewed the police report, there was no reason to associate the shooting itself with the elections. Also, two grenades were discovered in Bogo City by two children. It was suspected that the grenades were planted to sew fear into the hearts of voters.

During Election Day, our team visited precincts in 5 different municipalities. I couldn’t help but compare the Philippine elections to the BC Provincial Elections as they occurring at the same time. It was frustrating to learn that 52% of the population in BC voted where so many Filipinos voted despite crowding, long disorganized lines, heat, a lack of shade, and security threats. We were all humbled by the tenacity of voters.  Suffrage and voter-participation are fundamental aspects of democracy and the higher voter-participation rates in the Philippines suggest that Canadians can learn from Filipinos when it comes to engaging with the democratic process. While there were positive observations, the team observed that one candidate had set up a tent and was feeding voters. Some people were also seen walking into a candidates home and coming out with envelopes, what was suspected to be vote-buying.  

Whether this past election was generally more credible and peaceful than the previous is a difficult question. It really depends on which jurisdiction you look at because what happens in each is so different. The PCOS machines that were used to process ballots were functional for the most part, aside from a few paper jams.  Election-related violence also decreased dramatically in the areas we visited in comparison to the 2007 and 2010 elections. Above all, we observed that in the areas we visited the 2013 midterm elections were less violent and more credible than in 2010 and that president Aquino’s anti-corruption policies seemed to be producing some tangible results.

Volunteering with COMPACT was a truly eye-opening and unforgettable experience. To come back and volunteer during the 2016 presidential elections would be an honour.