Vote machine glitch heightens election fears

Fears that national elections in the Philippines next week could descend into chaos grew on Tuesday after authorities said they had detected a major technological flaw with vote-counting machines.

The Commission on Elections admitted it now faced a race against the clock to replace memory cards for 82,000 machines that are to be used in the country’s first attempt at a computerized tallying of ballots.

“We are not sugar-coating this. This is definitely a setback,” said Information and Communications Technology Secretary Ray Anthony Chua, who is part of the commission’s advisory body.

Chua and other officials said a “human error” had resulted in the memory cards, which carry software telling the machines how to read the ballots, being configured incorrectly.

They said the mistake was only picked up on Monday when full-scale testing began.

The election commission officials insisted that the faulty memory cards could be replaced in time for the May 10 polls and that the automated process would succeed.

But the embarrassing episode fueled widespread concerns across all sides of politics that the computerized vote-counting experiment could prove to be a failure with extremely dangerous consequences.

“Our confidence in the elections commission has been shattered,” said Gilbert Remulla, spokesman for presidential candidate Manuel Villar.

“What appears now is that there is basis to believe there is a spectre of failure of elections hanging over us.”

Presidential frontrunner Benigno Aquino, who has been warning for weeks of problems within the automated election process, said Tuesday’s announcement showed his concerns were justified.

“We have said it before and we are saying it again: we are wondering why the Comelec (elections commission) is not meeting its obligation under this election to make sure that it is a clean, clear and credible process,” he said.

More than 50 million voters will go to the polls to choose a new president, as well as thousands of lower-level government positions.

The government decided to introduce a computerized system in an effort to shorten the vote-tallying process from a few weeks to a few days, and to minimize cheating that has plagued previous elections.

However critics of the system have said it is too complicated for the developing Southeast Asian nation of more than 7,000 islands, and that a parallel manual count should be carried out.

Bobby Tuazon, policy studies director at the Center for People Empowerment and Governance, said he doubted whether there would be enough time to correct the problem.

“This will raise doubts about the winners and results. This will just increase fears among the public,” said Tuazon.

An election lacking in credibility could lead to a dizzying range of chaotic scenarios, including people taking to the streets in support of presidential candidates who may lose but challenge the result.

Security analysts have also said an elections failure could lead to a power-grab by elements within the military loyal to President Gloria Arroyo, who is required by the constitution to step down on June 30.

Arroyo’s critics have accused her of secretly plotting to try and stay in power, and that an election failure would suit her ambitions.

A spokeswoman for Joseph Estrada, who surveys showed is tied for second alongside Villar in the race for the presidency, also voiced concern.

“It is ironic that poll automation, which is supposed to secure the sanctity of the ballot, is now the very threat to the electoral process,” Estrada spokeswoman Margaux Salcedo told AFP.

Salcedo repeated Estrada’s call for a parallel manual count. The government has said it does not want a manual count as that would sow further confusion.

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