Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fears of chaos raised over Philippine automated vote

Agence France-Presse
First Posted 14:05:00 04/15/2010

Filed Under: Eleksyon 2010, Politics, Elections, Civil unrest

Original Story:

MANILA, Philippines – Filipinos are preparing for a historic election in which they will vote using machines for the first time, but there are rising fears the experiment could fail and trigger deep political chaos.

More than 82,000 automated machines will be used across the Southeast Asian archipelago for the May 10 election, with results expected to be known in just two days instead of several weeks under the former hand-counted manual system.

But electricity supply problems, data transmission complications, the reliability of the machines themselves and the potential for the system to be manipulated could lead to a failure of elections, analysts said.

"There are a lot of problems and vulnerabilities in the system that have not been checked, and this could lead to a failure," Bobby Tuazon, policy studies director at the Center for People Empowerment and Governance, told Agence France-Presse.

"These machines have not been subjected to rigid stress tests in actual conditions," said Tuazon, whose group is an independent poll watchdog that has closely studied the automation process.

The breakdown of two machines in Hong Kong when voting for overseas-based Filipinos got underway on the weekend only heightened the concerns.

"If the machines can malfunction in Hong Kong where there is excellent electricity and IT infrastructure, how many more problems could there be in remote, rural areas in the Philippines?" Tuazon said.

The automated polls are being introduced to reduce the risk of cheating, which has plagued Philippine elections in the past, and to make the process of counting 50 million votes more reliable and efficient.

But the Commission on Elections has even admitted there is a chance 30 percent of the machines, provided by a Dutch-Filipino consortium in a P7.2 billion ($161 million) deal, could fail.

If machines break down or information can not be transmitted, there may be no clear winner within 48 hours as planned, with some saying the confusion could last for months.

In a worst-case scenario, the Philippines – which has endured repeated coups, a dictator and martial law since independence from the United States six decades ago – could then be plunged into political turmoil.

Pacific Strategies and Assessments, an Asia-focused business risk consultancy group, released a report this week warning of the worst.

"If poll automation falters or fails, the country could very well experience levels of political instability and constitutional crisis that would drastically increase its overall risk climate for years to come," it said.

Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile also recently suggested the military and police may need to take control of the country to keep the peace should there be a total failure of elections.

If no president is declared by June 30, the constitution says the next in line in the succession of power would be the Senate president, followed by the speaker of the lower house.

But both positions could be vacated by June 30 as Enrile and the lower house speaker are up for re-election.

It is feared that military leaders, many of whom are close allies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, could then fill the vacuum.

Arroyo is required by constitutional term limits to step down on June 30, but her critics insist she is trying to devise a way to remain in power and a failed election could be her answer.

The failed election scenarios are dominating the Philippine media's election coverage, but there are strong voices in the debate insisting the nation's democratic foundations are strong enough to withstand the machine test.

"It remains highly unlikely that all machines will conk out all at the same time” said Ben Lim, a political scientist and professor at Ateneo de Manila University.

"And if that does indeed happen, then someone would likely be behind it."

Lim said civil unrest, if any, would not be widespread as feared by many, and that Filipinos would not stand for any untoward power grab.

"The public will not be able to tolerate any coup, and they too are tired of mass uprisings," he said.

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