Filipinos carry on love affair with PCOS machine

The precinct count optical scanner (PCOS) did what it was supposed to do—read the votes from the precincts and rapidly transmit the results to computers that automatically add them up at both local and national levels. With only about 15 percent of the results [as of Thursday] waiting to be transmitted due to mechanical malfunctioning, the country’s first nationwide automated election may be judged a success. Sheer speed wiped out the space for wholesale cheating.

Without realizing it, the nation had taken a big risk. The machines had not been adequately tested. Major glitches marked their deployment and final testing. The furor over the defective memory cards fanned rumors of a coup or martial law declaration.

In the morning of Election Day, long lines of irate voters clogged the precincts, indicating that the non-mechanical aspects of the process had been overlooked. The clustering of precincts created complications. But, in the end, patience and creative improvisation won the day for the nation. Toward the close of voting, nearly every voter had been served, except those who went home, deterred by the endless lines of people slowly wilting in the ovens we call voting centers.

The Comelec put the voter turnout at 75 percent. It could have been at least 80, if the voter flow had been smoother. Five percent is about 2.5 million disenfranchised voters. Still, to be fair, a 75-percent turnout is high in the modern world.

Unsung heroes

The true heroes are the public school teachers who bravely managed a process that appeared familiar but contained new sequences. Every clustered precinct had its own distinct ecology, and the almost obsessive focus on the PCOS machine created its own blind spots. The teachers had to make small but significant adjustments to ease the flow of restless voters.

It was crucial that the teachers overcame their initial trepidation over the PCOS black box. This new-fangled piece of technology promised to relieve them of the tedious chore of reading and tabulating the ballots. They were soon charmed by this inscrutable gadget. It appeared to have moods and needs of its own. 

Like a precious child

They carried it like a precious child, laid it down gently on its crib, prayed over it, guarded it, fanned it when it seemed to overheat and coaxed it when it stalled.

In a remote precinct in Mindanao, a woman inspector instinctively scooped the machine from its crib and shielded it with her own body when gunmen dispatched by a losing candidate came to destroy it. Images like this will long stand as metaphors for a nation valiantly embracing modern technology in the face of all odds.

When the results for national officials started to stream in as digital flashes of data signifying the will of the nation, not even the hard-core skeptics would dare raise the question: But how reliable are the numbers being reported? A nation in awe of modern technology simply decided to repose its total trust in the PCOS machine.

In an instant, all the apprehensions and dire scenarios that attended the widespread failure of the machines at final testing vanished in the air.

Even the confusion and the long lines in the first hours of voting were forgotten and forgiven the moment the PCOS accepted the ballot and flashed a congratulatory message to the voter. The subtext is that the one on trial here was not the machine but the Filipino voter himself. 

Trusting the results

The public had no problem accepting the results because they were consistent with the pre-election surveys. One would have to assume a conspiracy of the grandest proportions, involving both Smartmatic and the Comelec, and the collusion of the survey firms, to seriously entertain the thought of an electronically rigged election under these circumstances. Of course, there is no guarantee that, operating with the same machines, future automated elections will not be subjected to attack by computer hackers hired by dirty politicians.

For now, the system seems so impermeable to hacking that the only way to attack it is to physically destroy the machine, the memory cards and the ballots themselves. 

Untransmitted results

This is what is feared in those outlying precincts that have not been able to transmit results. The unreported votes could spell the difference in close contests like the current vice presidential race.

Where the PCOS machines are unable to read or transmit, the first line of defense is to call for replacements, or have the ballots read and transmitted by other machines in neighboring precincts.

This, we understand, is being resisted by the teachers and by the residents themselves, fearing a doctoring of the results.

The PCOS they trust. And so, up to this time, they await replacement machines or memory cards. The final contingency measure is to manually read all the ballots and prepare the usual precinct statement of votes. Yet, our people seem not predisposed to do that.

This is remarkable. One wonders if it signifies a total trust in the machine, or a tacit lack of trust in our capacity as human beings to render an honest count. 

Interpreting the results

A successfully conducted election is one thing. The quality of the leadership it puts in power is another. The election campaign was framed by an unprecedented level of disapproval and distrust of the Arroyo administration. This was a burden that Gilbert Teodoro and almost everyone tarred by close association with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had to bear.

Except in Pampanga, which became the largest recipient of presidential largesse just before the election, the repudiation of the Arroyo people has been nearly total.

Ms. Arroyo’s triumph in the province’s 2nd congressional district means little unless she gets to be Speaker of the House. Given the results, this is not going to be a walk in the park for her.

Between moralism and populism

The election clearly belonged to the opposition, but a fragmented opposition courting the people’s vote. The Arroyo government was a convenient target.

Instead of offering alternative programs, the various groups took the easy path of attacking a lame duck regime, differing only in the way they framed their attacks. The Aquino-Roxas group highlighted the regime’s corruption and abuse of power as the principal cause of mass poverty. It projected itself as the moral alternative.

As expected, the camp of Joseph Estrada assailed the neglect of the poor under Arroyo’s elitist presidency, repeating the same populist line that brought it to power in 1998.

Estrada tried to tap the dormant class resentments that lie beneath the surface of Philippine politics. This time, however, the beneficiary of the richversus-poor rhetoric was not him but his running mate, Jejomar Binay. Mayor Binay, who has dominated Makati politics since 1986, astutely projected a plebeian persona as an antithesis to the patrician background of Mar Roxas.

Manny Villar’s party also tried to ride the populist wave, with the senator asserting his credentials as a poor boy growing up in the slums of Tondo. These claims were exposed as a gross exaggeration. His is a fascinating case of populism caught in its own paradox. It is not possible to sustain the folk image of someone who has known the privations of being poor while thoughtlessly spending billions in campaign advertising.

The landslide victory of Noynoy Aquino, the legatee of Cory Aquino’s iconic integrity, represents the nation’s unconditional rejection of corruption in government. The voters chose Aquino because in him they saw a good man. He will not steal.

That is a winning message—for as long as we are in a campaign. But, as an approach to corruption, it naively underestimates the complex demands of governance. The country needs more than moral crusades based on good-versus-evil narratives; it needs strong, modern institutions.

The tight race between Roxas and Binay invites interpretation. Binay leads by a few hundred thousands. What could the Filipino voter be thinking? This is not merely the Cory effect at work. I believe the Filipino voter chose a man of integrity for president but, having done that, wants to make sure someone who belongs to their ranks speaks for them. We have two paradigms woven into one here—the moral and the populist.

In contrast, in both the senatorial and local races, our voters seem not as obsessed with the need for change. For the Senate, they went for the reelectionists and the old familiar names. One of the freshest faces in the political stage, Risa Hontiveros, was stalled in 13th place, way behind the movie actors and the veterans of traditional politics.


The Marcoses

A fascinating footnote to the senatorial race is the successful run of Bongbong Marcos. This is his second bid; he was rejected the first time.

Perhaps the Filipino voter thinks the family has been punished enough.

Noynoy himself has said he has no issue with the Marcos children. Evidently, the sins of the Marcoses, viewed alongside those of the Arroyos, have considerably dimmed. The family is clearly back, but it would be premature to regard their grand return to public positions as the product of a revaluation of the Marcos years.

While the Senate has long been regarded as a nursery for future presidents, and a Senator Marcos may well be in quest of redemption in the name of an unburied patriarch, it is foolish to think that the nation at this point can imagine returning the Marcoses to Malacañang.