Until now, President B. S. Aquino 3rd and our pork barrel, dynastic politicians can’t seem to get it right. Our problem is not whom to put in Malacañang next year, but how, once and for all, to have a clean, credible and valid presidential election. Our 2010 and 2013 elections were a farce. We did not know it then, but we know it now—the Venezuelan firm Smartmatic ran the elections for the Commission on Elections, which alone has the constitutional mandate to run elections, and its precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machine was first divested of all its security features and accuracy mechanisms before it was deployed in all the voting centers. So the elections could not have been valid, and the results were at best questionable.
Aquino has tried to divert public attention from this issue by talking about who should succeed him when he finally prepares to meet his jailers. The de facto president has pointed to a de facto senator whom he considers probably most qualified “to continue what he has started.” Some people read these words in quotes to mean, “to protect those who have committed serious crimes in office.” To this statement, Aquino has added the even more hilarious suggestion, that presidential debates in 2016 should “revolve around his accomplishments.”
Just exactly what Aquino has started which the next President should continue? And what exactly are his accomplishments, which should inspire presidential debates?
His corruption and bribery of Congress to impeach and remove a sitting Chief Justice and ram through a patently unconstitutional Reproductive Health Law?
His virtual takeover of the three branches of government without need of martial law or national emergency?
His monstrous fund transfers through the Disbursement Acceleration Program, and venal use of the Priority Development Assistance Fund, both of which the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional?
His reckless and happily unsuccessful attempt to promote a war between the US and China?
His complete abdication to Malaysia of our country’s sovereign rights over Sabah?
His stand-down order to his own troops which led to the massacre of 44 Special Action Force commandos in the hands of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters at Mamasapano, Maguindanao?
His unreasoning resolve to reward the killers of the 44 SAF commandos with an Islamic political entity conceived and drawn up in Kuala Lumpur, arguably by Kuala Lumpur, and indisputably for Kuala Lumpur?
These questions (and more) deserve to be discussed in several columns. But for now we shall talk of what Aquino and our grizzled politicians can do to clean up our venal electoral system, first by banning Smartmatic and its infamous precinct count optical scan machines from our elections. The process has already begun.
On April 21, 2015, the Supreme Court junked Smartmatic’s P269-million contract with the Comelec for the repair and maintenance of 80,000 PCOS machines for the May 9, 2016 elections. The High Court ruled that the “midnight contract,” signed a few days before the retirement of Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr., was in violation of the national procurement law, and therefore void. This was the first major blow.
Smartmatic’s only chance of staying in the game now lies in its being allowed to supply 23,000 new PCOS machines, for which the joint venture of Smartmatic-TIM Corp., Total Information Management Corp,, Smartmatic International Holding, B.V. and Jarltech International was ‘pre-qualified’ to bid, against a disqualified Spanish competitor.
But this was a two-stage competitive bidding, and on May 5, the Comelec Bids and Awards Committee, upon recommendation of the Special Technical Working Group, “post-disqualified” the joint venture from supplying the 23,000 new PCOS machines, on legal and technical grounds. Smartmatic had failed to submit valid Articles of Incorporation, and its demonstration unit had failed to meet the requirement that the system should have at least two storage devices, and should be capable of writing to the same all data/files, audit logs, statistics and ballot images simultaneously.
This was the second major blow. This has left Smartmatic out in the cold for now. Unless Smartmatic is allowed to participate in a new official bidding, and finally awarded a new contract free from the infirmities of the previous one, and unless the BAC reconsiders its May 5 ruling, Smartmatic would have no participation whatsoever in the 2016 elections. This was the best news for those who have been trying to persuade the Aquino administration to work for clean and credible elections.
But Smartmatic is leaving no stones unturned to reverse its misfortune. It has submitted a new bid for the repair, maintenance and “upgrade” of the 80,000 PCOs machines, this time avowing full compliance with the national procurement law, no longer at the original price of P269 million, but at an astonishingly astronomical cost of P1.68 billion.
No readily available explanation exists for the nearly six-fold increase in the cost, except for the fact that the word “upgrade” has been added to the original “maintenance and repair.” What services are contained in that word “upgrade,” which are not yet covered by the word “repair,” is not clear. But these obviously account for the six-fold jump.
At the same time, Smartmatic has asked the BAC to reconsider its decision on the lease of the 23,000 PCOS machines. Although this is a legitimate course of action, Comelec sources have revealed that Smartmatic is employing “foul tactics” on the BAC members in an effort to get them to reverse their decision. The bidder’s motion for reconsideration contains offensive language against the members, and they are being shadowed and subjected to obvious physical surveillance, these sources said.
The BAC is composed of some of the most dedicated, hard-working and competent men and women at the Comelec, which is not exactly the abode of angels and saints, the sources said. It is chaired by Helen G. Aguila-Flores, deputy executive director for administration, with Jubil S. Surmieda, regional executive director for the National Capital Region, as vice chair, and lawyers Charlie L. Yap and Marina Juana Valeza, and Director III Divina E. Blas Perez as members. The BAC voted unanimously for the post-disqualification of Smartmatic.
Since Smartmatic started running the country’s elections in 2010, it has developed no little clout over many Comelec personnel. Some of its people like to throw their weight around, making it difficult for ordinary Comelec personnel to resist their impositions, the sources said. The BAC will have to stand together and count on the support of the new Comelec chairman Andres Bautista to withstand the foul tactics and high pressure being exerted on them, the sources said.
What Bautista will do in the face of Smartmatic’s determined bid to remain as the central player in the 2016 elections will certainly define his chairmanship of the highly controversial body. It remains an open secret that some former Comelec officials, who have maintained active ties with their old associates are lobbying to keep the Smartmatic actively engaged in the elections, despite the rigging of the PCOS machines in the 2010 and 2013 elections. Bautista will need to show complete independence from all extraneous pressures in order to carve a new image for his office and the entire Comelec.
To his credit, Bautista has shown complete openness to an alternative voting system developed by qualified Filipino engineers. In last week’s Senate hearing, Bautista agreed to listen to a presentation by AES Watch and allied groups on such a system. On my cable TV program on GNN yesterday, Dr. Nelson Celis, Ph. D., spokesman for AES Watch, revealed that Bautista had agreed to allow his group to demonstrate an alternative manual-mechanical (or hybrid) voting system they have developed, on May 27.
According to Celis, this is a completely transparent system that would cost the government virtually nothing, as against the billions being spent on Smartmatic. Instead of using anything like PCOS, the system would use ordinary laptaps and computers, which could be acquired at the lowest cost in the market and then donated to the schools after the elections, thereby avoiding the tremendous warehousing costs required by the PCOS.
Its first and most important service is that it would keep Smartmatic and its “hocus PCOS” out of Philippine elections. That would finally put the criminal syndicate inside the Comelec out of commission, and make it virtually impossible for any Comelec official or so-called watchdog to make money on the automation of the elections. We shall now let Bautista and the new commissioners tell us whether this is good or bad for the nation.
Bautista could offer further proof that he is on the side of electoral reform by exerting some special effort to make sure that the cases which Celis and company have filed with the Ombudsman against the Comelec commissioners responsible for rigging the 2010 and 2013 elections should finally move before 2016. It is such a shame that while the Ombudsman has been so quick to proceed against Aquino’s perceived “enemies” on partisan charges, it has not moved an inch on cases that go into the heart of the sovereignty and political integrity of the nation.