LECTION season is nigh. Ricky Carandang's The Big Picture (ABSCBN ANC) tv talk show tonight ("Who's Watching the Watchdogs?") tackled the huge issue of CHEATING in Philippine elections and the use of watchdogs that conduct quick counts, parallel counts and, in a new twist, "realtime audits" of the election counting process. The prototype of these watchdogs is the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) headed since its inception in 1986 by Joe Concepcion.
The most cogent remarks came from Louie Sison, who worked with Namfrel during its "Camelot" in 1986. Namfrel's effectivity has been downhill ever since, he says, because the unofficial status of Namfrel allows the Comelec to simply ignore any discrepancy between its results and that of Namfrel, which, as its own rep on the show admitted, limits its activities to reporting results, not acting on, resolving or (laughs nervously) filing cases over discovered irregularities.
I think there is a deeper logical flaw in the whole conception of Namfrel as an "official" but toothless watchdog which has indeed made the problem of election cheating even harder to root out as a direct consequence. It lies in the following idea. Because the framers of the 1987 Constitution wanted to immortalize the truly heroic role that Namfrel played in 1986 snap elections that saw the end of the fascist dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and the restoration of constitutional democracy in the Philippines, they made provision for a thing like Namfrel to act as "official watchdog" of all future elections. But that is really all they provided for Namfrel to do--to watch and report on the elections as Comelec's "citizen arm." The true, and only now obvious, effect of this was to transfer from the Comelec to Namfrel the moral responsibility to conduct honest, orderly and peaceful elections. We can see this in the fact that when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was defending the integrity and legitimacy of her 2004 electoral victory over Fernando Poe Jr., it was the pronouncements of Namfrel's Joe Concepcion and Bill Luz, as well as that of some 36 Catholic Bishops, that she pointed to as proof. Yet Namfrel has no enforcement or prosecutorial powers; it's count is not an official audit of the elections results, and even the new groups proposing to do "realtime audits" of the elections would have no standing outside the Court of Public Opinion (where of course its principals like Obet Verzola love to operate anyway).
Thus, the mere existence of these watchdogs (vouchsafed by the Constitution at that!) leaves Comelec itself in a lurch of perpetually being suspected as THE cheating machine to be distrusted and reviled, yet it is still the only official source of the election results. This makes for a perfect cheating paradise for very high level operators like Virgilio Garcillano. Knowing the operating system limits of Namfrel, such cheaters, can carry out wholesale cheating in the canvassing phase of the count with virtual impunity, given the false sense of security that anyway there is Namfrel acting as a watchdog to keep things honest. The onus of producing honest elections is no longer on Comelec at all, but on the toothless watchdogs that are supposed to detect any cheating going on. Recent experience proves that Namfrel has been reduced to affirming the apparent honesty and fairness of the various elections exercises. Unless there is massive and obvious cheating going on, as indicated let us say by a walkout of disgusted computer operators as happened in 1986, Namfrel's activity only serves as a fig leaf for the unabated and craftily hidden wholesale cheating operators that is directed right from the Comelec's highest en banc body--by Commissioners like Garcillano. The fact that Namfrel and any other accredited watchdogs are made part of the system means that circumventing their vigilance is a trivial matter for the cheaters.
It's time to get rid of this anomalous and self-defeating situation. It is the Comelec itself that must be forced to the good for it is the Comelec that is tasked by the Constitution to deliver honest, orderly and peaceful elections. The watchdogs, like Namfrel, are no solution to the problem at all, because they are toothless watchdogs that can be fooled or worked around just as easily by the election cheating operators. The 2004 elections and the revelations that arose from the discovery of the Garci recordings conclusively proves this fact, that Namfrel has itself become the cover the cheaters use to say, "See, Namfrel said it was a generally honest election."
Unless the watchdogs have all the powers of the Comelec, they are no solution to the cheating problem. At best they can throw any election into fine kettle of controversy and confusion about what the real vote count was. A man with two watches, or even four watches, doesn't know the time.
Like the banks, the honesty of Comelec can only be guaranteed by the inviolable software of auditable automated systems--and something Ricky's other guest, lawyer Lila de Lima demanded--that election cheats be put in jail for real--a thing that has apparently never happened even though it is acknowledged that everyone cheats in a Philippine election. Comelec cannot be kept honest by the external watchdogs. We must fix Comelec and election system itself by adopting the technologies that make it practically impossible to cheat and not be caught. Like in the banking and financial systems.
Only the politicians and the cheating pros want you to believe that such a thing cannot be done.