NEW YORK – It was a rare occasion to see prominent Filipino New Yorker Loida Nicolas Lewis, Chairman & CEO of TLC Beatrice International, on the same stage as grassroots organizers. Usually they’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
But on April 29th, at a press conference at Lewis’ office, she and the activists came together for a common cause – to organize masses and prayer vigils throughout New York to pray for clean and honest elections in their homeland, the Philippines.
The upcoming election of a new president, vice president and officials to fill 17,000 national and local posts, is historic. On Monday, May 10th, for the first time, 50 million Filipinos will vote using electronic machines. In past elections votes were counted by hand, a process that could take weeks.
Depending on whom you believe, automation will eradicate cheating, as trumpeted by the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, or make fraud more systematic, as her critics warn. In anticipation, many Filipinos are nervous that the government won’t have the capability to respond to technological glitches, power outages, or other system failures. If that happens, the country could be left with a chaotic power vacuum.
There have already been a number of glitches. On Tuesday, the Philippine Commission on Elections ordered the recall of 76,000 memory cards to be used in voting machines, after some were found to be defective. Despite this setback, Election Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal assured the population that all the machines will be retested by Monday.
Elections in the Philippines are often accompanied by violence. This year, the death toll began piling up even before the start of the official campaign period.
In November 2009, the slaughter of 57 people in the southern province of Maguindanao lifted the lid off a rivalry between two Muslim political clans – each with its own private army. The Maguindanao Massacre was outrageous for its brazenness – 31 journalists died in the attack – inviting reproach from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Transparency International ranked the Philippines 139th out of 180 countries in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index. “Philippine elections are well known for being mired in cheating,” Rico Foz of the left-of-center National Alliance for Filipino Concerns said.
Lewis, also a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton within the Asian American community, was hoping the Philippine government would allow for a parallel manual count in case the machines fail. A manual poll would “ensure transparency,” she said. But the Philippine Commission on Elections rejected calls for a manual count, saying there wouldn’t be enough time and logistics to prepare for that.
The Philippines has an exceptionally large overseas population – nearly 9 million. Filipinos living outside the country can vote in national elections under the Overseas Absentee Voting law, but only 590,000 are registered to vote. In the New York area, officials say there are 7,877 registered voters out of an estimated 250,000 Filipinos living in the region – a dismal 3.1 percent. One “FilAm” (Filipino American) in New York said there is more interest in watching a Yankees-Red Sox game than the outcome of the presidential election. The race is between two senators: Benigno Aquino III, who is the son of democracy icon Corazon Aquino; and real estate tycoon Manny Villar.
But while migrant Filipinos may be indifferent to the outcome of the election, they are still keeping a close watch because of the potential for violence and how it can affect the families they left behind.
One FilAm who is not voting, but wants to keep a close connection with the Philippines, is community activist and CUNY Professor of psychology Kevin Nadal.
“Even though I am a FilAm here in the U.S., the election of the new president in the Philippines still has an impact on the lives of my family members, both in the Philippines and here the U.S.,” he said.
Nadal shares the view of many FilAms that “election in the Philippines always has the potential to be corrupt, sometimes even leading to violence.”
On election day, Queens nanny Belen Martinez is planning to attend a mass at the Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz (also known as the Filipino chapel) in Lower Manhattan and pray for the Philippines to have peaceful elections. After work, she will try to catch the outcome of the elections on the Internet.
“I am hoping there won’t be any violence, or maybe not too much,” she said. “And may the best candidate win.”