Philippine Elections Under Fire

Under normal circumstances, when fire destroys

a decrepit, decades-old building already condemned as a fire hazard, people might

jump to the logical conclusion – this was a disaster waiting to happen.

But this is the Philippines. And two months before Election

Day, the gutted building happens to be the office of the Commission on

Elections (Comelec). Circumstances can hardly be considered normal.

The two-storey building, located behind the

crumbling walls of the Spanish-era Intramuros district of Manila, caught fire

in the early morning hours Sunday, in the midst of campaigning for upcoming

legislative elections. It was also the second week of the country’s Fire

Prevention Month.

Reports say that the fire began in the ground

floor of the main building, and, for some reason, firefighters stationed across

the street were delayed long enough for crude oil leaking from a nearby generator

to quickly spread the fire to the second floor.

Despite the fact that the building had yellowing

documents stacked floor to ceiling and electrical wiring snaking everywhere, conspiracy

theories are multiplying in the overheated political atmosphere. Talk of cover-ups,

cheating, and a foul plot to cancel the polls made their way around town even

before the ashes had a chance to cool.

Opposition candidates automatically trained their guns on the

administration. Opposition Senator Jamby Madrigal, upon hearing the news,

speculated that President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo’s administration is setting

the stage for a “no elections scenario”. The idea is not entirely baseless,

given that until last December, Arroyo and her allies were pushing for constitutional

changes that would have postponed the elections to November at the earliest.

Comelec officials, however, were quick to say the

incident will not affect preparations for the May elections, as most of their

main offices and operations have been transferred to a nearby building. But

the old structure housed, among other things, the offices of the records

division, and the Commission on Audit which investigates fraud; documents that

involve pending election cases and recent Comelec purchases went up in smoke.

As expected, the already tarnished credibility of the Commission

wasn’t spared. Candidate John Osmeña said the fire may have been the doing of a

“big fish” with something to hide. The fish, he insinuated, is Comelec itself.

Obviously insulted, the Commission shot back. Spokesman James

Jimenez, said, “I would like to state categorically that we did not do it. Such

fear-mongering does nothing except to undermine the credibility of the Comelec

and, believe us, that is not something we want right now.

“What sort of idiots do these people think we are to put ourselves in the

line of criticism this way?”

The fire also comes in the wake of controversies at the

National Printing Office earlier this month. Printing chief Felipe Evardone,

who has at least six graft charges pending against him, filed a leave of

absence after his brother was named media coordinator for the administration

party, Team Unity. The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper also reported that employees were caught copying serial numbers of official ballots

at the printing office.

Adding fuel to the embers is the lingering fallout from the 2005

“Hello, Garci” scandal in which audio recordings of a cell phone conversation allegedly

between Arroyo and then Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano were leaked to

the public. They were heard apparently making chit-chat about rigging the 2004 presidential

election results. Despite much noise and even impeachment attempts, no trial

occurred, largely because of Arroyo’s staunch majority in the House of

Representatives.

“Basically, if the Comelec cannot even

protect its own building from a simple fire, with its military security detail,

private security staff and close proximity to a fire station, then how can the

ordinary voter feel assured that the Comelec can protect his vote against

cheating?” said a statement issued by opposition spokesman Adel Tamano.

In the typical Philippine manner of addressing controversy

with a committee, a new inter-agency, anti-arson task force was immediately created

just to investigate the fire. It is likely that the task force will announce in

a few weeks the results of a “thorough investigation” showing that the burning

of the Comelec’s fire hazard of a building was, indeed, an accident.

Whatever the findings, voters are almost certain never to find

out who the real culprit is — assuming there is a culprit — because if one

thing is apparent from all of this it is that the credibility of the country’s

electoral process is as decrepit as that old building.