PITY party-list organizations. Although Republic Act 7941 reserves 20 percent of House seats for these groups, which are supposed to be from marginalized sectors whose interests are not represented in Congress, the reality is that it is difficult for them to win votes. That’s because Filipinos are still mostly uninformed about the party-list process and the Commission on Elections has done nothing in terms of a voter-awareness campaign to remedy the situation.
Based on the Garci tapes, however, it now seems that some party-list groups that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo supported may have been counting on help from no less than a Comelec commissioner himself. In several instances, Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano was heard discussing the chances of at least five party-list groups getting seats in Congress: VFP (Veterans’ Freedom Party), ALIF (Ang Laban ng Indiginong Filipino), ANAD (Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy), SMILE (Samahan ng mga Mangangalakal sa Ikauunlad ng Lokal na Ekonomiya) and TUCP’ (Trade Union Congress Party).
“These were all publicly endorsed by GMA,” says Ronald Llamas, national president of Akbayan, another party-list group. “They are all identified with GMA. There are no anti-GMA among the party-list groups mentioned in the tapes.”
Two of these groups have already been proclaimed winners and are currently holding seats in the House of Representatives; Ernesto Guidaya represents the VFP, while Acmad Tomawis represents ALIF. The Cornelec is also expected to proclaim ANAD as another winner, meaning its first nominee, ex-communist-turned-vigilante Jun Alcover, will soon have a seat in Congress.
The VFP was proclaimed ahead of ALIF, having been among the 15 party-list organizations declared as winners by the Comelec on June 2, 2004. Sitting as the national board of canvassers for the party-list elections, ihe Comelec proclaimed 15 organizations as winners, resulting in 23 party-list representatives. But this was only a partial proclamation. At that time, the Comelec said it was suspending the canvass as it was still awaiting a final Certificate of Canvass from the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Favored groups first?
The next day, June 3, Garcillano is recorded as having called up someone named Lyn and telling her, “Ipaalala mo kay Romy meron silang reward niyan pero ‘wag maingay…Meron pa kasing isa pa sana kung pupuwede pero hindi ko alam meron silang ikakuwan, ‘yung SMILE din ke kuwan pa naman ‘yan, sa kaibigan diyan sa tabi. Pero ‘yung isa sigurado na ‘yun…Pagkatapos ng kuwan, tatanungin ko pa ‘yung isa. (Remind Romy they have a reward but that they should keep silent…There’s still another one that could be included] but I don’t know if they have…and then there’s SMILE, which is our friend’s. But one’s already for sure…Later, I’m going to ask about the other one.)” SMILE, which represents small and medium-scale businesses, including vendors and service providers, had former bastketball star Ramon Fernandez as a nominee.
Five days later, a certain Ruben called up Garcillano, asking, “Papaano ‘yimg ano natin, sa party list (so how’s our, you know, in the party list)?” The commissioner replied he could not do anything yet because “wala pang usapan ang mga tao tungkol diyan (there hasn’t been talk about that yet).” But Ruben pressed on, asking specifically about TUCP and ANAD. TUCP is the party-list arm of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, which has had its former secretary-general, Ernesto ‘Boy’ Herrera, become senator in the past.
Garcillano told Ruben that doing anything would be difficult because the proclamation of party-list winner was over and expressed concern about being too aggressive in pushing forward “favored” groups — ‘”yung mga malapit” — since they could be noticed. Ruben then reminded him that the organizations he mentioned were “malapit ‘yan ha kesa sa SMILE (they are more favored than SMILE).”
A few minutes after this conversation, Garcillano accepted another call that turned out to be about the VFP. The caller, an unidentified man, wanted to know if there was a chance the group could have another representative aside from Guidaya. Garcillano again said the proclamation was over, bul like Ruben die caller was insistent. Garcillano finally said that the number of votes garnered by the group had already been recorded and official; the implication was the figures could no longer be played around with.
Exactly a week later, on June 14, Garcillano accepted a call from another unidentified man who asked when something would be clone about “the party list.” The commissioner replied that he was still working on it, but that “ang mauna siguro iyong ALIF. Pero gusto ko masabay-sabay (ALIF could be first. But I would want them proclaimed all at the same time).”
As it turned out. the Comelec did proclaim ALIF as a winner. But other party-list groups have since questioned that act. They note that ALIF was proclaimed alone, separate from the first batch, and ahead of another expected batch that to this day is waiting to be proclaimed. Why, the groups ask, did ALIF get special treatment? How did it get in, while other party-list organizations are still wailing for either their first or second nominees to be proclaimed?
As far as other party-list organizations are concerned, VFP, ALIF, and ANAD are among those vested interests seeking entry to Congress through a backdoor that has made a mockery of the party-list system. Long before the Garcillano conversations were made public, the party-list group Partido Manggagawa (PM) had already sought the disqualification of eight party-list organizations, including VFP, ALIF and ANAD, on the grounds that these did not meet the criteria for accreditation.
Had the Comelec been stricter in screening party-list candidates, these groups would not have had a chance in running in the elections. VFP is a reincarnation of the Veterans’ Federation of the Philippines, a group previously disqualified from the party-list contest because it was an entity supported by the government. It changed its name to Veterans’ Freedom Party less than a year before the elections. Its representative Guidaya was in fact a retired military man who used to head the Philippine Veterans’ Affairs Office (PVAO), an agency under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
ALIF Representative Tomawis, meanwhile, was a party-list nominee of the Laban ng Demokrutikong Pilipino (LDP) in 2001. The LDP was disqualified then because it was clearly a traditional political party that was more than amply represented in both houses of Congress. PM asked the Comelec to disqualify ALIF this time because it violated one of the criteria for party-list accreditation: that not only must the party be marginalized, so must its candidate. “Tomawis is a big businessman engaged in overseas trucking, particularly trucking services in Iraq,” the PM said in its petition. A number of party-list representatives see Tomawis’s assumption as congressman as the most questionable of all the controversial party-list nominations.
The third group included in the petition for disqualification is ANAD, which is composed of former members of the notorious anti-communist vigilante group Alsa Masa. “It is in truth a project organized and an entity assisted by the government to promote an anti-communist position,” the PM said.
How such groups were able 10 sneak in anyway has long been a frustrating mystery for other party-list organizations. Another puzzle is the suspiciously high number of votes certain first-time party-list groups obtained in Mindanao, particularly in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao or ARMM. Since the Garci tapes surfaced, however, speculations have grown that negotiations were being made at the Comelec level, not only for questionable groups to be included in the race, but also for these to obtain votes afterward.
Just months after the May 10.2004 elections, party-list groups were already questioning the results in some provinces in ARMM, which also happens to be an area where Garcillano is supposed to be the most well-versed among the Comelec commissioners. At least two patty-list groups — PM and the Citizens Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) — have since filed complaints with the Comelec on what they say are dubious election results. The most basic issue is the turnout of votes.
- In Lanao del Sur, the number of registered voters was 273,011 yet the total number of votes cast for party-list groups was 279,927, which translated to a 100.3 percent turnout for party-list polls.
- In Basilan, the total number of registered voters is only 150,282 while the total votes cast for party-list organizations was 163.385.
- In Maguindanao, the total votes cast for party-list candidates was placed at 283,012 out of a total of 334,331 registered voters, equivalent to a high turnout of 84,65 percent.
- In Tawi-Tawi, the total number of votes for party-list groups was 76,334 out of 120,402 registered voters, or a turnout of 63.4 percent.
Various party-list groups have noted the mathematical improbability of such figures, especially since the survey group Social Weather Stations predicted before the elections that the voter turnout for party-list elections would not he more than 40 percent. In Quezon City, headquarters of some of the biggest party-list groups and focus of intense election propaganda, the turnout of party-list votes was only 35 percent. Party-list groups wondered how the results could more than double in far away ARMM.
Interestingly, it was in Lanao del Sur where ALIF got the bulk of its votes. Comelec records show that ALIF got 116,489 votes in that province, representing more than one-third of total votes from there. This presents another statistical conundrum: there were 66 party-list organizations that competed, and there were at least three others based in Mindanao or having a Muslim constituency. How could an unknown, first-time organization like ALIF corner the lion’s share in such a crowded field?
There were other suspicious results as well. In Basilan. the party-list topnotcher was the unknown Visayas Farmers Party or Agrifil, which got more than 90,000. The party-list group Anak Mindanao (AMIN) called the Comelec’s attention to that “irregularity.” Last September, the Comelec’s first division responded; it said it was indeed statistically impossible for Agrifil to win because its papers showed that its base were the Western Visayan provinces of Aldan, Capiz, Guimaras, and Iloilo where it got only 11,464 votes. The Comelec said Agrifil “had no clear constituency” in Basilan and called for the investigation of the provincial election supervisor.
Shortly after the Garci tapes scandal broke out, Comelec chief Benjamin Abalos himself said that his office would prosecute the Basilan election officials responsible for the Agrifil votes. The decision, though, has yet to be implemented.
The Comelec has also failed in other things, particularly in being more transparent about the party-list count, which to this day remains unfinished. At the very least, party-list organizations are demanding accountability from the Commission. “They (the Comelec) are very evasive when we ask them about the last remaining COC (Certificate of Canvass) that still needs to be canvassed. They never came out with official statement of any sort regarding the conclusion of the party-list canvass,” says Blanca Kim Bernardo-Lokin, second nominee of the party-list group CIBAC, which along with party-list groups PM, Butil, and Gabri-ela are awaiting proclamation of their second nominees.
Of course, the Comelec can always say it is besieged with a mountain of complaints from party-list groups — some with legitimate grievances and others without. Most of them are asking for a recount, presenting COCs showing they won enough voles for a seat in Congress.
Groups like Akbayan are wondering how the Comelec will deal with the situation. A recount has probably been granted since the Comelec is poised to proclaim new winners. But Akbayan’s Llamas asks: “If they restore the votes of a group which says it was robbed of votes, then that means they have to take away votes from those who stole. We don’t know how the Comelec is doing it, And we don’t know either how the other party-list groups managed to scrounge for votes. Where are all these votes coming from?”