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Faulty memory cards may halt Philippines election

With 76,000 counting machines affected, fears grow that a failure of Monday's vote could lead to political instability and uncertainty

Election workers are rushing to correct defects in counting machines ahead of Monday's vote.
Election workers are rushing to correct defects in counting machines ahead of Monday's vote.

Manila // The prospect of the Philippines holding its first automated elections on Monday looked in serious doubt yesterday after it was revealed that 76,000 memory cards to be used in the counting machines are faulty.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's election lawyer was quoted as saying the elections should be postponed for 15 days so the problems can be sorted out properly. "Under the present situation a 15-day postponement would be reasonable to give Comelec [Commission for Elections] time to print additional ballots for a manual vote and tally," Romulo Macalintal told local media. But a former energy secretary and retired army general, Angelo Reyes, said: "This is totally unacceptable." Mr Reyes's comment reflected the growing concern among many Filipinos that Monday's elections could fail, leading to political instability and uncertainty. "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," the Philippine Daily Inquirer said on its front page. Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, who has a 19-point lead in the opinion polls and is expected to be the country's next president, warned that if the system breaks down and he is denied the "people's mandate" there would be demonstrations that would make the ongoing Red Shirt protests in Bangkok "pale in comparison". Mr Aquino's political colour is yellow. He told a press conference yesterday that "elections must push through on Monday - either automated or manually". "If the vote is delayed it will create problems," he said. "People want a new leadership." By law, the incumbent Mrs Arroyo must step down at midnight on June 30 and hand over the presidency. Mr Aquino said his greatest fear was a complete breakdown in the automated system, which could lead to widespread cheating. "Our confidence on the elections commission has been shattered," said Gilbert Remulla, a spokesman for the Nacionalista Party (NP) of another presidential candidate, Senator Manuel Villar, said. Mr Villar, who is trailing Mr Aquino, is neck-and-neck with the disgraced former president Joseph Estrada, both sitting on 20 percentage points in the latest poll. Mr Aquino has led the polls since campaigning began in February and is way out in front with 39 points. "What appears now is that there is basis to believe there is a spectre of failure of elections hanging over us," Mr Villar told local media. Mr Estrada said in a statement that he would rather see the automated poll scrapped and a return to the old manual system of voting and counting, which often took weeks to declare winners because of cheating and ballot rigging. The automated polls promised to eliminate cheating and produce winners within 48 to 72 hours of polls closing. Gregorio Larrazabal, a Comelec commissioner, spent the day in damage control, trying to allay concerns that the elections may have to be postponed. "That's not on the table," he told local television. He admitted that it would be a "tough challenge" to get new cards to all the machines, which are scattered across the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. "It is a major logistical problem, but our goal is to get it done," he said. Comelec has four days to rewrite the codes and send them to the provinces, Mr Larrazabal said. "We now have to write [the codes] into the cards, bring them to the provinces and then swap them with the old ones, test and seal them again." Mr Larrazabal also said most of the new memory cards still had to be brought into the Philippines over the next two days. The National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), which has monitored elections in the Philippines for more than 25 years, said: "There simply is not enough time to reprogramme all the memory cards." Namfrel, which has not been accredited with Comelec for this election, has consistently voiced concern over delayed delivery and inadequate testing of the machines. Comelec said late on Monday that memory cards for the 76,000 vote-counting machines would have to replaced after Smartmatic-TIM, which won the multimillion-dollar contract to automate the polls, said testing had found that the memory cards had been configured incorrectly and that the machines were unable to read the names of the candidates on the ballot papers. On Monday, 50 million Filipinos will go to the polls to elect a president, vice president, 12 senators, 287 congressmen, 80 governors, 80 vice governors and 17,000 local positions from city mayor to councillors. foreign.desk@thenational.ae