Lanao del Sur, Marawi voters ask Comelec to hold special elections

MANILA, Philippines – Vilma*, 49, is sure she remembers it clearly: it was around noon of election day on Monday, May 13, when men stood by the gates of a precinct in Bayang, Lanao del Sur, handing voters money for them to shade specific names on the ballot.

Vilma had seen this take place before, but this time she wanted to be sure of what was happening. She approached the gates where the men stood and asked what the money was for. The men simply handed a small piece of paper with names of candidates and shaded circles next to it – a guide, they said, for who they should vote for.

Vilma and her companions say they were offered P3,000 each to vote for a mayoral candidate, who they refused to name, and P5,000 if they were to vote for a gubernatorial and vice-gubernatorial tandem.They refused.

Vilma pushed her way into the voting precinct, but inside things were far from better. Flying voters had caused fights to break out with locals of Bayang, claiming strangers made their way to their town to cast ballots in the 2019 midterm elections.

"Alam namin kung sino tagarito at sino 'yung hindi," said Vilma, who was born and raised in Bayang. (We know those who come from here and those who don't.)

Things started to get tense at the precinct that poll watchers started leaving their posts. Vilma stepped in for one watcher and tried to call in the Commission of Elections (Comelec) to report what she saw unfolding before her. She stopped out of fear after seeing armed soldiers enter the precinct, and left the scene herself soon after.

Some 55 kilometers away on the opposite side of Lake Lanao, the same scenes were unfolding. Norama Sharief said flying voters had caused voters in a precinct in Marawi City to break out in a scuffle.

She said that, after losing her home during the 2017 Marawi siege when the city was besieged by terrorists, the only thing she wanted to do was to cast her vote – but on election day, she could not do so because the fighting grew tense.

"'Pag boboto po ako kasi, parang naging isang tao ako," Norama said. (When I vote, it's like I become one person that has a say.) 

She hoped a new leader would mean faster rehabilitation efforts of the war-torn city that was still in ruins.

Six months since election day, Vilma and Norama stood outside the Comelec's headquarters on Monday, November 18, to demand voters of Lanao del Sur and Marawi City be given the chance to have clean and fair elections.

"Hindi ba karapatan namin 'yun? 'Yun ba ang tinatawag na right to suffrage?," Vilma said. (Isn't that our right? Isn't that what they call the right to suffrage?)

Exhaust all options

Together with Vilma and Norama, some 100 voters from Lanao del Sur gathered outside the Comelec main office in Manila to ask the poll body to declare a failure of elections in their province and Marawi City. They were part of the Lanao del Sur Alliance for Good Governance (LAGGO) that demanded the Comelec hold special elections in their areas.

The group filed a petition with the poll body last May 29, but have received no word on what the result of their petition was nor what stage it was currently at. LAGGO chairman Sultan Pundatoon Bagul said the group had one hearing at the Comelec, after which they received no follow-up.

As the country waited for official election results to be announced days after the May 13 polls, the Comelec called for sobriety as viral videos of alleged pre-shading of ballots in Lanao del Sur surfaced online.

Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez had said, while the poll body was not dismissing the video as fake, it could not determine whether there was cheating. It vowed to investigate the allegation of fraud.

With winners of the 2019 elections long proclaimed, most of the country has moved on with others looking forward to the next elections. But for Vilma and Norama, the long wait for answers continues.  Rappler.com

 

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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