Elections as optical illusions

If we continue to hold elections the way the Commission on Elections held them in 2004 and 2007, it won’t be long before we begin to believe that all elections are nothing but optical illusions.  They look real, we experience them as real – but they are all really a mirage, a perception made possible by our mistaken beliefs and the naïve inferences we make about our world.

It would be difficult to sustain any form of community, let alone a nation, if people were led to think like this.  Yet, by failing to invest adequate effort to maintain the credibility of elections, the Comelec is precisely encouraging the public to think of them as a sham, a fiction – which indeed they may have become in places like Maguindanao.

But, on the other hand, I think there is something we are gaining from this as we desperately struggle to make democracy work in our society.  Our vision is gradually acquiring depth.  Our growing familiarity with the various stages of the electoral process is making it possible for us to carefully follow the magician’s hands, with a view to catching him in the middle of his trick.  Thus, volunteer election watchdogs for the May 2007 election zeroed in on the making of the municipal and provincial certificates of canvass in specific provinces, instead of spreading their gaze nationwide.

In the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, the public airing of the “Hello Garci” conversations generated tremendous curiosity, but failed to spark any enduring outrage.  Why?  I think it was because the picture of conspiracy and deception that the tapes brought forth was not as clear to most people as we thought it was.  To be able to see the picture, people needed to have some background knowledge of the different phases of the electoral process itself – e.g., what happens to the votes after they are tallied at the precinct level, how precinct level results are transformed into municipal certificates of canvass (CoCs) and by whom, and how municipal CoCs in turn become the basis for preparing provincial CoCs.  Only if one follows the whole series of steps of the electoral process does one begin to be aware of the countless blind spots where any magician may carry out a quick sleight-of-hand.

The media were not remiss in their duty to put the story of the Garci tapes in context.  Various investigative and in-depth reports connected the dots and exposed a portrait of deceit that should have hounded the principal subject out of office.  Caught in the act, the magician momentarily lost her poise, but carried on with her performance, gambling on the assumption that only a few had seen the trick.  It worked, and so the magician lingers on the stage, long enough to talk about legacy.

The audience, however, has become wiser.  And so in 2007, a replay of the same tricks, instead of being applauded, only elicits resentful recognition.  Lintang Bedol, Maguindanao’s elusive provincial election supervisor, confidently reprises his role as Garci’s operator, but everyone sees what he is doing.  Worse, like a ghost from the past, he brings back to the consciousness inconvenient images of a stolen national election that the smug among us have preferred to bury in their unconscious.

In the last days of the summer break, while cleaning my study, I stumbled upon my scribbled transcriptions of the Hello Garci tapes. Instinctively, I threw them into the dustbin, half in disgust and half in awareness that they belong to a moment in the nation’s life that is long gone.  But, as is my wont when discarding things on which I had spent so much time, I read them again and decided that they are as contemporary as today’s news.  But more than that, in the light of recent events, they sound more real.  At last, Bedol is no longer just a name; he is also a face.  Here is a conversation that took place on 29 May 2004 between Garci and his boss that refers to Bedol:

Ma’am:  Hello, forty-plus daw ang talo ko dun sa Cotabato.

Garci:    Ma’am?

Ma’am:  More than forty.

Garci:    More or less, pero hindi siguro sosobra ng forty Ma’am.

    Nag-usap na kami ni Atty Bedol.

Ma’am:  Ah ganon?  So mali yung figures ni Teng?

Garci:    Ah siguro, kasi yung si Teng kinausap ho niya and staff ni Atty Bedol.  Kami ni Atty Bedol nag-usap ho ngayon. But I’ll give you the exact figure Ma’am in a little while, para ma-ano ninyo.  I’ll give you the exact figure in a little while.

Ma’am:  Oo, pero….. (line cut)

Nothing in these lines overtly indicates cheating.  We may indeed read them as nothing more than an anxious candidate’s attempt to get the latest information on the status of her votes.  That is how Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo explained her calls to an election official in 2004.  Such a reading, however, is naïve in the light of what we now know about Atty Bedol and the outcome of the 2007 Maguindanao election for senatorial candidates.

The election did take place in Maguindanao as elsewhere in the country.  The votes were tabulated at the precinct level, and these were collated at the municipal and provincial levels.  What is in question is whether there is any correspondence between the precinct election returns and the results reported in the municipal and provincial CoCs.

We have seen enough to believe that a magician’s hands were at work again in the 2007 election.  We no longer find optical illusions amusing.


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