Monday, August 29, 2005

Who Won the Elections?


By Sec. Ricardo Saludo


In its impeachment charges and its media offensive, the opposition has sought to discredit not just President Gloria Arroyo, but the May 2004 election which made her the democratically elected and internationally recognized leader of the country until 2010. Armed with allegedly forged election returns, tales of collusion with election officials, and tapes that are illegal, manipulated, or both, the accusers are trying to conjure in the public mind the scenario of a nationwide conspiracy to subvert the national will.

Amid this confusing cacophony of accusations, legalese, evidence and hearsay, this article aims to help the quest for truth and justice by recounting the actual events, data and assessments of the election, particularly those with great bearing on its outcome.

The Candidates. Both Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Fernando Poe Jr. were formidable candidates with strengths that put them way ahead of their other rivals. Senator in 1992, topnotcher in the 1995 senatorial race, and landslide winner as vice-president in 1998, Arroyo wielded unmatched nationwide political backing. The dominant Lakas-led coalition was behind her, as were most governors, mayors and legislators. And she enjoyed the equity of the incumbent, gaining support from beneficiaries of state programs.

What Poe, the country’s most popular action film star in the 20th century, lacked in political experience and clout he made up for with his irresistible mass appeal untarnished by corruption allegations and political compromises. Backing him was the major opposition grouping under his lifelong friend, former president Joseph Estrada, and former Senate president Edgardo Angara. Poe’s tandem with Loren Legarda offset the media and masa clout of Arroyo's popular broadcaster running mate Noli de Castro.

The Campaign. The two camps adopted predictable strategies. The President highlighted her achievements and vision for the nation, along with her governmental and economic knowledge. Poe’s messages harped on the widespread hardship in the land and unsavory allegations against the administration, while projecting him as the hope of the poor. Notably, throughout the campaign period, there were no reports of the President meeting with Comelec officials anywhere anytime for whatever purpose.

Poe shot ahead early in the surveys (see table below), but the movie star's reluctance to speak at length about national issues and his program of government raised concern about his readiness for the presidency. A few spats with reporters further alienated some media, while a legal battle over his citizenship slowed his drive for political and funding support.

Meanwhile, the incumbent steadily climbed the survey rankings, as her governance message and accelerated programs persuaded more and more voters to go for Gloria. The tragic illness of the late Raul Roco, who had to leave his campaign to seek treatment in the U.S., shifted more of the affluent and the educated to the President’s fold.

Then two mammoth religious groups, the Catholic El Shaddai and the Iglesia Ni Cristo, threw their vote-rich congregations behind the President. Days before the elections, she led Poe by a statistically significant 6-7 percentage points in surveys by the two most reputable polling firms, Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia.

Philippine Voter Preferences, 2004

SWS

Jan. 16-22

Jan. 28-Feb. 8

Feb. 17-25

Mar. 11-19

Mar. 21-29

Apr. 10-17

May 1-4

Arroyo

26.5%

28.7%

31.8%

32.9%

31.4%

35.3%

37%

Poe

36.3%

37.5%

30.5%

34.9%

32.0%

30.8%

30%

Pulse Asia

Jan. 23-Feb. 8

Feb. 16-20

Mar. 27-Apr. 4

Apr. 26-29

Arroyo

33%

32%

34%

37%

Poe

35%

32%

31%

31%

The Economy. Besides the vicissitudes of the campaign, the economic surge during the Arroyo Administration also had a bearing on the outcome of the election. In a range of economic indicators, the President excelled among the past four chief executives:

The Philippine Economy, 1986-2003

Annual averages

Aquino

1986-92

Ramos

1992-98

Estrada

1998-2000

Arroyo

2001-03

GDP growth

3.7%

3.7%

2.8%

4.6%

Inflation

10.4%

7.6%

6.0%

5.2%

Job increase thousands

800

686

162

1,214

Moreover, under President Arroyo, the poor and middle class share of national income rose 1.3 percentage points, in contrast to stagnation or decline in the past. The bottom 40% among income groups saw their per-capita earnings rise between 22% and 38% from 2000 to 2003. Meanwhile, the very rich saw their share of national wealth shrink 1.5 points, while their average income fell 9.3% between 2000 and 2003.

Notably too, in the presidential elections of 1986 and 1998, the administration candidate lost when GDP growth in the January-March quarter before elections fell well below 2%. But he won in 1992 when expansion from the same period a year before was 2.2%. Year-on-year growth in the first quarter of 2004 hit 6.4%, a good omen for the incumbent.

A final bit of data showing how economics affects election politics: the President was strong in regions where poverty incidence declined the greatest: ARMM (down by 8.7 percentage points), Region 12 (-8) and Region 7 (-7.8). These are the same areas where massive cheating is now alleged. But economic data suggests it was not dagdag-bawas in the polls that helped the incumbent, but bawas-hirap for the poor.

The Election. With 50,672 candidates vying for 17,717 positions and the nods of 43,551,281 eligible voters in 216,725 precincts, the polls were bound to be fractious, messy, and in many places, fraudulent and violent. On the whole, however, the voting on the second Monday of May 2004 was deemed little different from past elections in terms of irregularities, confusion and bloodshed, as gauged by most seasoned poll watchers, reputable watchdog organizations like the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), major religious groups, and some 100 foreign observers.

The 322 violent incidents counted by the Institute for Popular Democracy from campaign to canvassing were exceeded only by the 405 clashes in 1986. But the 77 deaths recorded were the fewest in two decades. Namfrel estimates possibly more than a million people were not able to vote due to mistakes in the new computerized voters’ lists in many precincts. But independent commentators including Namfrel did not see this or any other problem as major enough to matter in the contests for national positions.

On May 22, 2004, Namfrel declared: “The results of the elections are credible and reflect the vote of the people. We did not see enough electoral anomalies at the national level to have a material effect on the national results.” Ten days later, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) agreed “that there were some instances of cheating and violations of election law by political parties in their areas, but these did not affect the voting in general.”

The tapes controversy did not change the CBCP assessment. At the prelates’ conference on July 10-11, 2005, their president Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla affirmed, following consultations with clergy all over the country: “It is the view of the bishops that the results of the elections reflected the will of the Filipino people.”

The results of pre-election surveys, exit polls, and the Namfrel, Comelec and official Congress canvassing were consistent. Gloria Arroyo was victorious by substantial margins in all these tallies. As she did in the last few surveys before May 10, the President beat Poe in the four exit polls conducted by media (see table below):

Philippine Election Exit Polls, 2004


ABS-CBN/SWS

(4,627 respondents)

GMA7/AMA

(24,865)

Radio Veritas

(4,800)

DZRH

(20,000)

Arroyo

41%

39%

38.1%

36.8%

Poe

32%

29%

26.7%

31.7%

Arroyo eventually garnered about 40% of the vote in the Congress tally, which varies from nearly all surveys, exit polls and Namfrel’s quick count by less than the statistically significant three percentage points. The close numbers prompted some in the opposition to charge that the President’s K-4 coalition, the survey companies, and the media had conspired to rig the results. There is a simpler explanation: the survey and election results were the same because they all reflected the same sovereign choice of the electorate.

Philippine Presidential Election Results, 2004

Final Official Congressional Canvass

Candidate

Party

Votes won

% of total

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Lakas-CMD

12,905,808

40.0%

Fernando Poe, Jr.

KNP

11,782,232

36.5%

Panfilo Lacson

LDP

3,510,080

10.9%

Raul Roco

AD

2,082,762

6.4%

Eduardo Villanueva

BPM

1,988,218

6.2%

Total valid votes cast


32,269,100

100.0%

NAMFREL Quick Count (based on 82.98% of precincts reported)

Candidate

Party

Votes won

% of total

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Lakas-CMD

10,400,401

39.4%

Fernando Poe, Jr.

KNP

9,719,479

36.8%

Panfilo Lacson

LDP

2,818,704

10.7%

Raul Roco

AD

1,816,832

6.9%

Eduardo Villanueva

BPM

1,609,073

6.1%

Total valid votes cast


26,364,489

100.0%

A final set of numbers buttressing the President’s triumph and the consistency of results were the victories of most of her fellow candidates in the K-4 coalition. De Castro won with 49.8% of the vote in the Congress tally and 50.1% in Namfrel’s. With candidates for nearly all positions, K-4 captured close to 90% of the congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral positions. These overwhelming successes in districts, provinces, cities and municipalities nationwide could not but have helped the coalition’s presidential standard bearer to also garner big votes among most of those constituencies.

The K-4 Landslide


Positions

Won by K-4

Share of total

VP

1

1

100%

Senators

12

7

58%

Congressmen

210

182

87%

Governors

79

67

85%

City Mayors

117

102

87%

Mayors

1,493

1,278

86%

The Protests. No Philippine election is complete without charges of vote-buying, count-rigging, intimidation and violence hurled by the losers against the winners. In the 2004 presidential races, the protests reached fever pitch during the nationally televised canvassing of votes in Congress using 176 Certificates of Canvass (CoCs) containing tallies from provinces, cities, and special voting centers here and abroad.

Any political party worth its salt can dig up evidence of counting irregularities, especially in an election with more than 32 million votes tabulated by hand in 216,725 precincts late into the night and the following morning, then transported across vast distances to provincial capitols and city and municipal halls, and finally sent as CoCs to Congress and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in Manila for national canvassing.

Claiming massive fraud, Poe’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) and the Bangon Pilipino Movement (BPM) of Eddie Villanueva demanded the opening of ballot boxes to check CoCs against statements of votes (SoVs) and election returns (ERs). KNP listed 25 tallies it wanted reviewed. Rebuffed, it asked that only three or even just one CoC be recalculated based on SoVs and ERs, just to see if there was major cheating.

The demand put Administration congressmen in a bind. If they refused to break with the decades-old constitutionally mandated practice of canvassing only the COCs after verification with copies held by contending parties, then the opposition would charge and many people would think that K-4 was hiding irregularities.

On the other hand, if Congress agreed to check even one CoC at KNP’s request, it would have to do the same for other parties. K-4 would feel compelled to come up with its own list of suspect CoCs, if only to show that any fraud it was accused of was offset by the opposition’s own cheating. No doubt too, each SoV and ER would have been fiercely contested, with countless witnesses paraded in the Batasan to affirm or dispute anomalies.


The endless delay in canvassing would have created an unstable situation on June 30, 2004. Arroyo would cease to be president but no successor and no vice-president would be proclaimed. Indeed, the tabulation of results might have stopped, since the terms of congressmen doing it would also end. And letting anyone other than the duly elected president run the country might have spurred coup plotters to exploit the leadership crisis.

So the ruling coalition in Congress decided to follow the tried and tested canvassing practice stipulated in the Constitution, braving the barbs of oppositionists and critics that irregularities were being concealed in refusing to open ballot boxes. Poe and Legarda filed election protests with the Supreme Court in its capacity as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. They demanded a recount of votes from selected areas using SOVs and ERs contained in ballot boxes stored in Congress.

Last December, Poe passed away, and K-4 lawyers weeks later asked for the dismissal of his election contest. Reason: a protest is pursued only if it has interested parties who may rise to a contested office depending on the decision. This is to avoid cases being filed by just anybody who doubts the official results. De Castro and Legarda were the only remaining parties with legitimate interests in Poe’s petition, since either could become president if it prospered. But neither took up the case contesting President Arroyo’s mandate, and the Tribunal dismissed the protest early this year.

The Tapes. In early June 2005 there began circulating CDs alleged by the opposition and believed by many to contain wiretapped conversations of the President and Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, who subsequently went abroad. Versions of the audio material were broadcast, distributed, transcribed, published, downloaded, played in Congress, and turned into cellphone ringtones. Certain portions have led to suspicions and charges of collusion to commit election offenses.

On June 27, after weeks of maintaining silence on the tapes due to their illegal provenance, President Arroyo apologized for calling an election official to safeguard her votes during the canvassing. The nationally broadcast statement was misconstrued by many, including Poe’s widow Susan Roces, to be an admission of election fraud. There is also an uncorroborated, widely denied accusation that Comelec officials received bribes in the President’s family home.

The tapes have led to precipitous declines in the President’s trust and approval ratings, calls for her resignation, and the filing of impeachment complaints. It gave new life to the opposition’s claims that the elections were rigged. While no investigation and no due process have been undertaken to verify the suspicions and charges engendered by the tapes, surveys suggest that millions of Filipinos have already judged President Arroyo.

The Issue. The nation is now pondering two questions relating to the tapes: Was the presidential election rigged and the official result fraudulent? And did President Arroyo commit impeachable offenses during the polls? Only the second can be addressed by Congress, which does not have the power to decide presidential election contests. But a yes or no to impeachment would have the same effect as a yes or no to electoral fraud: the removal or retention of the President.

Some legal experts have opined that the impeachment process, being a political exercise, need not be as stringent in its proceedings and evidence as a court trial. One wonders why. The latter would take a convict away from family and friends who love him; the former would remove a leader from the nation that elected and empowered her.

Impeachment would cancel a six-year democratic mandate forged by the combined, often heroic and Herculean efforts of 43.5 million eligible voters, 650,175 election inspectors, more than 200,000 citizen poll watchers, respected survey and media companies, revered religious communities, and the builders and defenders of our democracy since 1898. Our nation and the Constitution demand that it be done only with the strictest due process and ample, unimpeachable evidence, in the service of justice and the good of all.