By: Our Correspondent

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.