Deadly Violence, Technical Bugs Mar Vote

Deadly Violence, Technical Bugs Mar Vote

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MANILA, Philippines—(UPDATE 2) Ten people were killed as bouts of violence marred the Philippine elections while problems with vote-counting machines frustrated voters in the country's first automated ballot.

More than 40 million Filipinos were expected to turn up at polling stations across the archipelago to elect a successor to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose near decade-long rule has been tarnished by allegations of corruption.

Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, a 50-year-old bachelor, is the favorite to win the presidency after riding a wave of popular sentiment for his democracy-hero parents.

But violence that always plagues Philippine politics, as well as problems with the nation's first effort at using computers to count votes, fuelled longstanding concerns about whether the election would be credible.

"Many people are voting and there are many complaints," election commissioner Rene Sarmiento told reporters, although he insisted the vote would eventually be a success.

More than 17,000 positions are at stake—from president down to municipal council seats—and local politicians are infamous for using their own "private armies" to eliminate rivals or intimidate voters.

Ten people were killed across the Philippines on polling day, bringing the death toll from election-related violence over the past four months to at least 40, according to police statistics.

Two of the fatalities occurred as gunbattles raged in the flashpoint southern province of Maguindanao, where 57 people died in a grisly election-linked massacre late last year.

The army, which deployed thousands of troops to Maguinanao to minimize the violence there, said soldiers engaged in a series of firefights with unknown assailants who fired rocket propelled grenades near polling stations.

Voters fled polling booths to escape the violence, while the military reported the two people who died were killed in clashes elsewhere between the private armies of rival politicians.

But security officials said the balloting was turning out to be the “most peaceful” that the country has seen if compared to the last two elections.

“So far this has been the most peaceful compared to our previous elections,” said AFP Joint Task Force Hope chief Colonel Ricardo Nepomuceno in a press briefing at Camp Aguinaldo Monday evening.

“We have reports from northern Luzon, generally peaceful dun, also Visayas and Southern Luzon, also peaceful,” he said.

“We hope this will hold until this night and until the canvassing is finish,” Nepomuceno said.

PNP Director General Jesus Versoza noted that though there were untoward incidents in election hotspots, particularly in Mindanao, the “overall situation during the whole day electoral exercise had been relatively peaceful.”

“The May 10, 2010 national and local elections will go down in our nation’s history as probably the most peaceful and orderly political exercise ever held in our land,” Versoza said in a statement read to the media by Police Deputy Director Genereral Edgardo Acuna in Camp Crame.

The conduct of elections in Luzon and Visayas were “generally peaceful” but noted that there were cases of violence in the province of Maguindanao and other parts of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, Nepomuceno said.

He said that as of 3 p.m., 34 incidents of violence were recorded nationwide: six shooting, five encounters with partisan armed groups or communist rebels, one robbery, one ballot snatching, three cases of intimidation of voters, three mauling and two improvised explosive device explosions.

At a Palace briefing, Chief Superintendent Leandro Espina, the PNP spokesman, attributed the peaceful holding of the elections not only to automation, but also to the "long drawn'' preparations by the police and military that involved controlling loose firearms in the country.

He said the PNP has been able to retrieve close to 800,000 of the estimated 1.1 million loose firearms in the country, thanks to the strict enforcement of the PNP national firearms control program since 2009, as well as the election gun ban imposed by the Commission on Elections.

Also a major contributor to the generally peaceful situation was the security forces' campaign against private armed groups, now down to 74 and under “tight” and “24/7 surveillance.”

“And because of this, we experienced effectively a very low election-related violence this year,” Espina said.

“These three major factors (automation, campaign to recover loose firearms and drive to dismantle private armies) contributed on a major scale to the general peace and order situation...I think we have nipped it in the bud, courtesy of PNP Director General Jesus Versoza who conceived of all these programs. He believed that if you take out all the loose firearms from the streets, then you solve election-related violence and he is proven right,” Espina said.

The PNP spokesman said that since January10 this year or 200 days ago, the police had received 82 cases of election-related violence, much lower than the 166 reported in 2004 and 181 in 2007.

In terms of casualties, this election year so far recorded 68 casualties, including 27 killed. For the same period in 2004 and 2007, the casualty cases reached 310 and 232 casualties, respectively.

Asked if he thought that the trend would continue until the end of the day, he agreed that this year's election “is the most peaceful if compared to the past two preceding elections.”

Meanwhile, technological problems emerged immediately after polls opened with some machines breaking down, and the election commission was forced to extend the voting period by one hour.

Long queues formed at polling stations with the election commission estimating 85 percent of eligible voters would turn out.

Most embarrassingly for election organizers, Aquino was forced to wait five hours to vote in his northern home province of Tarlac because the original ballot-counting machine broke down.

"This should not have happened and it would not have happened if Comelec had done its job," said Aquino, referring to the election commission.

Fearing a poll meltdown, Aquino and other presidential candidates have for weeks been calling for a parallel manual count but the election commission has refused saying this would only sow further confusion.

Aquino's main rivals are former president Joseph Estrada, 73, and property magnate Manny Villar, 60.

Two major independent surveys gave Aquino voter support of between 39 and 42 percent, a two-to-one lead over his challengers that places him on course for the biggest win in Philippine election history.

The frontrunner is the only son of former president Corazon Aquino and her assassinated husband, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., who are revered by many for spearheading the restoration of Philippine democracy in the 1980s.

However, the Philippines' tumultuous brand of democracy is capable of delivering all manner of surprises, and Aquino's win is no certainty.

Villar is counting on a vast nationwide political machinery to help him pull off a shock win, while former movie star Estrada retains strong support among the poor even after he was deposed as president in 2001 for being corrupt.

Many colorful characters are contesting the elections, including world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, 31, who is running for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Another candidate for the lower house is Imelda Marcos, 80, who gained global notoriety when thousands of her shoes were found in the presidential palace after her late husband Ferdinand's overthrow in 1986.