Violence and Glitches Mar Voting in Philippines 

The New York Times
Published: May 10, 2010

MANILA — Tens of millions of voters went to the polls on Monday to elect a new president and thousands of other national and local officials, as a new automated voting system created long lines and delays in many areas of the Philippines.

Problems with the new system, while apparently not as serious as had been feared last week, forced election officials to extend the closing of polling stations by one hour, to 7 p.m. Election results were still expected to be released on time, within 48 hours after the closing of the polls, according to James Jimenez, a spokesman for the national election commission.

Senator Benigno S. Aquino III, the only son of the Philippines’ two democracy icons, was favored to win the presidential election, as he and his main rivals wrapped up their campaigns over the weekend amid worries of widespread violence, cheating and the reliability of the voting system.

Kontra Daya, an election watchdog, reported Monday that counting machines broke down in nearly a dozen precincts in the provinces south of Manila, on the main island of Luzon. Voters also complained of missing voter lists, and Kontra Daya also said vote buying was reported in the region.

Voting in the southern region of Mindanao was marked by computer glitches, disorderly conduct, vote buying and violence.

In Maguindanao, one of the most violent provinces during the campaign period, bombings and gun battles were reported in several areas. And in Lanao del Sur province, just north of Maguindanao, election officials suspended elections in four towns due to the precarious security situation.

In the southern town of Kabuntalan, voting was suspended after two people died in a gun battle between supporters of rival candidates for deputy mayor, according to Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, a spokesman for the army in Mindanao. In Datu Salibo town, voting also was suspended after grenades were lobbed near a police station.

In the town of Buldon, gunfire and fistfights were reported at a polling station inside an elementary school as voters jostled for position. In the nearby village of Piers, hundreds of voters jammed into a small, stifling polling station, and soldiers were summoned to try to restore order. After two hours only 20 people had managed to vote.

“They all wanted to vote at once — it’s crazy,” said Zacaria Ayunan, a poll monitor. “We’re going to be here forever if order is not restored.”

One voter, Kabiba Tomawis, 40, had lined up in Piers as early as 6 a.m., and said of the furor: “It’s chaotic, but it’s fun.”

On the eve of the election, an explosion in a southern Philippines village killed at least one person, critically wounded three and wounded about a dozen others, residents and an official of an election watchdog said Sunday night.

The victims had just finished their evening prayers when what was believed to have been a grenade was lobbed inside a mosque, according to Arden Andong, a resident who spoke by telephone from his home in Pikit, a town in North Cotabato Province, nearly a quarter-mile from the mosque.

Earlier on Sunday, five people were killed in separate election-related episodes in two other provinces of the Philippines.

Fearing additional violence, the Commission on Elections announced that it was placing nine areas in the country under its direct control, including sections of Mindanao Island in the south. Just days after raising the possibility of postponing the elections because of a software flaw in the new voting system, election officials scrambled to replace memory cards in more than 76,000 electronic machines nationwide.

The commission anticipated delays in distributing new cards to some remote areas, affecting as many as 3.3 million voters of a registered total of 50 million, said Mr. Jimenez.

The elections — in which 18,000 local, regional and national positions also are being contested — amount to a critical test of the Philippines’ fragile democracy. Once an inspiration to emerging democracies for its “people power” overthrow of the American-backed autocrat Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Philippines has suffered from poor governance in the past decade.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who cannot run because of term limits, became president nine years ago after popular unrest toppled the democratically elected Joseph Estrada. Mrs. Arroyo, whose administration has been characterized by accusations of widespread corruption, is believed by some critics to have won in 2004 because of vote-rigging in the province of Maguindanao, in Mindanao, where 57 people were massacred late last year in the country’s single worst act of political violence.

Disillusionment with Mrs. Arroyo has helped Mr. Aquino, 50, the son of Benigno S. Aquino Jr., Mr. Marcos’s main rival, and Corazon C. Aquino, who became president in 1986 through her people power movement. The younger Mr. Aquino, who said he had never before considered running for the presidency, has benefited from an outpouring of sympathy since his mother’s death last year.

“We believe we have communicated our message: that we are different from those that currently run the country,” Mr. Aquino said in one of his last campaign events, according to the newspaper Business Mirror.

Manuel Villar, 60, a senator who had been considered the favorite before Mr. Aquino’s unexpected candidacy, wound down his campaign in Tondo, a poor Manila neighborhood where he grew up. Despite a compelling personal narrative — Mr. Villar became a billionaire in real estate and the Senate president in a country controlled by an oligarchy of powerful families — he was unable to shake accusations that he had used his political position to benefit his business.

“I see that the people running our country are the old prominent families,” Mr. Villar said, according to The Philippine Star newspaper. “They want to be the only ones to run the country.”

Also running is Mr. Estrada, 73, the former president who is ranked second or third, depending on the polls. Mr. Estrada, who was pardoned for plunder by Mrs. Arroyo, also ended his campaign in Tondo on a populist note.

The Philippines has adopted the new automated system to prevent the kind of fraud that has marred previous elections, but glitches could fuel suspicions that ballots are still being manipulated.

Norimitsu Onishi reported from Manila, and Carlos H. Conde from Maguindanao and Cotabato City, the Philippines.