Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Filipinos getting impatient over slow vote count

FILIBUSTERING The congressional tally of votes from last month's elections is being dragged out by petty debates and political bickering

DPA , MANILA

After enduring decades of slow vote counts, Filipinos are accustomed to waiting weeks before they officially find out who won elections.

But the public is getting impatient as the congressional tally of presidential and vice presidential votes in last month's elections drags on due to political bickering and acrimonious debate over even petty matters.

With less than three weeks before the term of the current government expires on June 30, Congress has not even tabulated half of 176 certificates of canvass that contain the votes counted in the provincial level.

It took the body one week to approve rules for the canvassing of votes, and another week to open some 200 ballot boxes containing the certificates from all over the country and from absentee voting centers abroad.

Under the constitution, only Congress can tally presidential and vice presidential votes as well as officially proclaim the winners.

While one newspaper commentator likened the delay in the tally to a "ticking time bomb with a short fuse," other observers stressed that speed should not be the only concern in the process.

"The process may be long and laborious but it has a purpose," said Senior Associate Justice Reynato Puno after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition questioning the constitutionality of Congress delegating its task to a 22-member committee.

"The nation can endure a slow but trustworthy tally," he added. "It may not survive an indefensible count, however speedy it may be."

While an exit poll and unofficial tallies showed that incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has won the May 10 vote, her strongest rival, actor Fernando Poe Jr, complained of being cheated.

Allegations of massive fraud have triggered doubts about the elections' credibility, even though the opposition has offered little evidence to the charges. Puno warned that under such a cloud of mistrust, an "unreasoned or unreasonable judgement by Congress" during the canvassing process "runs the risk of rejection in the parliament of the street, of the people".

The Arroyo administration has denied engaging in cheating and accused the opposition of stone-walling the tabulation process in an effort to instigate mass demonstrations that would prevent a proclamation of the winner.

Security officials also have warned of plots by retired military officers to recruit soldiers on active duty to launch a coup d'etat.

"The opposition strategy is obviously to stall the canvass, mount mass protests and expose alleged fraud," said Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye. "They should desist in the face of mounting public indignation."

In one session, the joint congressional canvassing committee failed to tabulate a single certificate after an opposition senator questioned an election officer for hours over a miscalculation in the number of local absentee voters.

Irked by the senator's filibustering, more than 100 people watching the proceedings walked out of the session hall in protest.

"This is outrageous," said one woman. "Our legislators should just go on with their task and tabulate the votes as the constitution mandates. We are getting tired of their antics."

Two weeks ago, while Congress was debating the rules of the canvass, a supporter of Arroyo handed a note to an opposition congressman who was challenging the legality of the process and told him to "shut up" and that he was wasting taxpayers' money.

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