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Comelec faces crisis as campaign season begins

MANILA, Philippines – While candidates go full swing as the campaign season begins Tuesday, February 9, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) moved a huge step backward in its preparations. 

Comelec Commissioner Christian Lim said the new problem involves incompatible codes in the systems to be used. The Comelec now needs to redo a major step to make these codes compatible. 

This compatibility issue prompted the Comelec to delay the printing of ballots. 

This could also affect other election schedules.

Lim warned that because of this problem, the Comelec might need to postpone the May 9 national and local elections in a few areas. 

"Sana naman hindi (I hope not)," he said in a news conference, referring to prospects of postponing elections. 

When asked to confirm if elections will push through on May 9 in all areas, the commissioner said, "We hope."

Lim later clarified that he is the type of person who always looks at "the worst possible scenario."

Still, he admitted that this problem has given him "sleepless nights." 

"I’m not happy, but it’s better than finding out one week before the elections that we need to change something," said the commissioner who calls himself "the worst-case scenario guy."

For his part, Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista said he doesn’t think that the incompatibility issue "materially" affects the Comelec’s preparations. 

Bautista – who said he and Lim often play "opposite" roles in scenario-building – said the delay can even "turn out to be a blessing in disguise." After all, it gives the Comelec more time to design a shorter ballot. 

He also pointed out that the incompatibility issue will make no impact on the mock elections scheduled on Saturday, February 13.

"When I independently examined this problem, I did not have sleepless nights," the Comelec chairman said.

Still, the poll body drew flak for this unexpected problem. 

During Monday’s news conference, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III was quoted as saying he was disappointed.

Pimentel reportedly said the Comelec could have avoided the problem if it had more "foresight," and that the poll body should require technology provider Smartmatic to explain.

Responding to Pimentel’s reported statements, Bautista pointed out that "there are a lot of things that can happen."

"We can either focus on the problem or focus on the ability of the organization to focus on solutions," he said.

The Comelec chairman also said he is "fairly certain" that Pimentel, chairman of the joint congressional oversight committee (JCOC) on the automated elections, will ask for explanations during the next JCOC hearing on February 16. 

Blame earlier delays, poll exec says

The question now is, who should be held accountable for these delays?

When asked this question, Bautista pointed upward and looked up to heaven. Laughter erupted.

"I don’t know," Bautista said. 

He continued: "Accountabilty is a big word, and I think these things happen during tests, and it’s one of those things wherein it’s just like illness. It’s better that you see it earlier rather than later. That means now, we’re able to do something about it."

Lim, for his part, blamed the problem on the rush caused by earlier delays.

The original schedule would have allowed the Comelec to start customizing the vote-counting machines by April 2015.

After all, the Comelec was off to an early start. In February 2015, the Comelec and Smartmatic already entered a P268.8-million ($6.08-million) deal to repair vote-counting machines. 

The SC, however, nullified this deal in April 2015 because it didn’t undergo public bidding.

This SC ruling brought the Comelec back to step one. The poll body, then, had to launch new bidding processes.

Eventually, the Comelec decided to lease 93,000 vote-counting machines also from Smartmatic.

The Comelec reached this decision only in August 2015. 

This forced the Comelec to shorten the time for customizing the machines. From 6 months, the Comelec had only 3. 

Lim said other delays included the long wait for a new Comelec chairman and two new commissioners. It took President Benigno Aquino III almost 3 months to appoint them after their predecessors retired.

Bautista and Comelec Commissioners Rowena Guanzon and Sheriff Abas started working at the Comelec only in May 2015. 

Lim said “everything got complicated” because of these delays.

"When you're rushing," Lim explained, "you’re prone to make errors." – Rappler.com

*US$1 = P42.21

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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