'No to vote-buying in Samar' – watchdog

CATBALOGAN, Samar – Civil society stakeholders in this province have formed an anti-electoral fraud group ahead of the May 2016 elections.

Members of the Church, academe, media, and the youth are behind the watchdog 'SamarVote 4Change,' which is calling for an end to vote-buying and other forms of cheating during the polls.

Fr Melvin Ojeda said they believe that local politicians will again use huge amounts of money to buy people's votes – a persistent problem in one of the country's poorest provinces.

"Despite the biggest clean-up campaign in the history of Samar politics, elections have always been dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-buying," Ojeda said.

"Until cheating remains unchecked by more or less credible people from Comelec, the democracy of Samar will always be an endangered species, and the 'popular will' will be subverted."

In towns in the province such as Marabut, San Jose de Buan, Basey, Pinabacdao, Calbiga, Daram, Tagapul-an, Motiong, Almagro, and Tarangnan, there were reports of vote-buying in previous elections.

Grace*, 28 years old, said local candidates would have them fetched and taken to a resort, hotel, or house, where they would be pampered.

"As you go out from the place, you will be given envelopes containing money – the least is P2,000, or [up to] P5,000," she said in the local dialect.

32-year-old Alma*, meanwhile, said that months before the polls, some candidates gave teachers electric fans "for an unknown reason." Public school teachers serve as Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs).

There were also reports of intimidation, harassment, and killings by private armed groups who work for influential candidates.

"'Open ballot' has long been practiced in our barangay. Private armed goons of incumbent local officials appear to supervise the operation," said 45-year-old Carlo*. "[Voters] are accompanied by a 'chosen poll assistant' to help you write the candidates and to be paid after you have voted."

As early as mid-2015, there were already cases of violence believed to be linked to the upcoming polls. Last May, bishops urged President Benigno Aquino III to stop the spate of killings.

Samar is included in the initial list of provinces identified as 2016 election hot spots by the Philippine National Police (PNP). It was also considered a hot spot in previous elections. (READ: Samar's long wait for salvation– Rappler.com

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals.