Sunday 11 April 2004
Last Update 11 April 2004 12:00 am
JEDDAH/RIYADH/ALKHOBAR, 11 April 2004 — Filipino expatriates in the Kingdom and elsewhere in the world will begin casting their votes today in the first Philippine overseas absentee voting exercise.
Overseas voting is to be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day in voting centers designated by the Philippine Commission on Election (Comelec).
Voting will run until May 10, when more than 48 million registered voters in the Philippines will go to the polls to elect their next leaders.
At stake in the elections are the president, vice president, 12 senators, members of the House of Representatives, and local officials, from provincial governors down to the town councilors.
Overseas absentee voters, however, will be voting only for the president, vice president, 12 senators and one party-list group.
Of an estimated seven million overseas Filipinos, only about 400,000 have registered for the first exercise.
Saudi Arabia has the biggest number of registered absentee voters, with more than 97,000. Of the number, 41,542 registered in Riyadh, 33,229 in Jeddah, and 22,783 in Alkhobar.
Voters will chose among five presidential candidates — incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, actor Fernando Poe Jr., former Education Secretary Raul Roco and television evangelist Eduardo Villanueva.
The four vice-presidential candidates are Herminio Aquino, Noli de Castro, Loren Legarda and Rodolfo Pajo.
There are 48 candidates for the 12 Senate seats at stake, while there are about 100 party-list groups, of which only a few are based outside the Philippines.
Among these are Gabay OFW, which was formed by various groups in the Kingdom, and Migrante, which has representatives from all over the world.
Voting is to be done personally at embassies, consulates, other foreign service establishments and polling booths designated by Comelec. Voting by mail is allowed only for OFWs in Britain, Canada and Japan.
In Jeddah, eight precincts have been set up with six polling booths available at the consulate premises, meaning 48 people can enter the polling station at any one time.
Administrative officer Taha Guinomla, the Jeddah poll coordinator, said everything was ready for the voters.
Volunteers from the Federation of Martial Arts Associations have offered to help ensure a peaceful and orderly conduct of the elections. The federation’s 500 members will act as marshals to preserve order in queues.
In Alkhobar, registered voters from the Eastern Region are to vote at the International Philippine School in Alkhobar (IPSA).
Labor Attaché Delmer Cruz, in charge of the exercise in Alkhobar, said six precincts on the ground floor of IPSA have been prepared to accommodate 12 voters at a time.
The Philippine Society of Safety Engineers led by Ed Balayo, president of the society, and other volunteers from different Accredited Community Partners of POLO-OWWA, are responsible for peace and order.
OFWs can vote provided their names are included in the Certified List of Overseas Absentee Voters.
In Riyadh, voting will be held at the Philippine Embassy.
Although the Saudi government and the Comelec had approved the use of the International Philippine School in Riyadh (IPSR) as a voting center, no decision has yet been made to set up polling booths in the school.
As part of the preparations for the election, one main gate of the embassy has been made into an entrance and the other an exit. Voters are supposed to leave immediately to avoid overcrowding, officials said.
The voting area includes the embassy lobby, with the Mabini Hall secured for ballot boxes.
Minister Mariano A. Dumia, the embassy’s charge d’affaires, urged all those who have registered to cast their votes.
“It’s the patriotic duty of OFWs to exercise their right of suffrage, so I appeal to them to take this opportunity,” he said.
Manning the precincts are members of the Special Board of Election Inspectors (SBEIs), comprised of personnel from Comelec, embassy or consulate, and community volunteers.
The inspectors are to verify the serial number of ballots cast to prevent fraud.
Voters were told to be careful to avoid erasures or tearing their ballot as no replacement would be issued for spoiled ballots, according to Comelec.
Filipino groups in the Kingdom, particularly the International Coalition of Overseas Filipino Voting Rights (ICOFVR), were among the most vocal in fighting for overseas Filipinos to be allowed to participate in Philippine elections.
Although that right had been enshrined in the Philippine Constitution of 1987, it was only in early 2003 that Congress gathered its resolve to enact an enabling law.
— Input by Rodolfo Estimo Jr, Francis Salud, Romeo Navidad