Lawmakers still hope for poll automation in 2010

July 1, 2009 9:11 am 

By Lilybeth G. Ison

MANILA, July 1 — Lawmakers on Wednesday expressed hope for an automated elections in 2010 amid conflict between the winning bidder Smartmatic and its partner, Total Information Management Corp. (TIM).

House Speaker Prospero Nograles expressed confidence that political will would direct the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to implement to the letter the noble intentions of the elections automation law and salvage the program from complete demise.

"Comelec must find (a) win-win solution to this mess. I believe in the integrity of the Comelec under Chairman Jose Melo and I have high hopes that he can still save the poll automation program," said Nograles, as he noted the vitality of fully automated elections to ensure clean, honest, fast and reliable electoral processes.

He said that the 2010 national and local elections are very crucial to the country’s socio-economic and political transformation.

"The string of global and local challenges, including natural disasters and man-made crisis, dictate the urgent role of effective, transparent and democratic governance," he said.

For his part, Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. said there is still a chance of poll automation to push through in next year's election if Total Information Management would back off from its demand of P500 million to its partner, Smartmatic.

"There is a chance for automation kung matakot si (TIM president Jose Mari) Antunez. He might back off and continue with the project," he said.

Locsin said another option is for the Comelec to conduct another bidding process should TIM decide to withdraw partnership with Smartmatic, and for the poll body to peg the value of a new poll automation contract at P7.2 billion, the worth of the deal proposed by Smartmatic and TIM.

He, however, said the losing bidders would be placed in a bind as Smartmatic-TIM’s winning proposal made their bids look padded.

They might have to cut corners in order to make a bid lower than that, he added.

But, the big question is whether the Comelec still have time for a re-bid, given the strict time frame for preparations for the May 2010 polls.

Comelec Chairman Jose Melo has given Smartmatic and TIM until Friday to resolve their differences or else the poll body would no longer sign the P7.2-billion contract.

He said the Commission is already mulling several options in order to save the poll automation project should the Smartmatic and TIM fail to settle their differences over power and money sharing.

Locsin recounted the remarks reportedly made by TIM president Jose Mari Antunez to Smartmatic lawyers during recent negotiations at Peninsula Manila Hotel that put in jeopardy the P7.2-billion election automation deal with the Comelec.

"Of course, they took this as a joke but lawyers do not laugh about such things. They took it as a deal breaker. The lawyers thought this was tantamount to extortion," said Locsin, who based his account on his conversations with the lawyers of Smartmatic.

Although the Makati solon could not pin down what motivated TIM to play hardball with Smartmatic, he said "this is an orchestrated move to subvert the elections."

Locsin said that by making "impossible demands," Antunez is laying the groundwork for its defense against a lawsuit to be filed by Smartmatic in Singapore.

"P500 million is really big because Smartmatic’s bid is already 'sagad' (the lowest). You are not suppose to do that, it’s illegal. You cannot just give P500 million profit to somebody. Why will you do that?" he said.

"Smartmatic cannot cough up half a billion pesos before they even implemented it because some things could happen. I wouldn’t ask for something like that even if I was greedy," he added.

Locsin noted that Antunez had suddenly become "unreasonable" shortly after signing a joint venture agreement — 60 percent for TIM and 40 percent for Smartmatic — by making all kinds of demands from its foreign partner.

He said Smartmatic had given in to almost all of Antunez’s demands, except when he asked that he be given the "power to decide when and how much money to spend."

Smartmatic balked, according to Locsin, because TIM could decide not to sign the check to pay the creditor-supplier of the equipment, the logistics supplier and the deployment of Comelec personnel.

When Smartmatic rejected this, Antunez made his demand for P500 million up front money, he said.

The Makati congressman also cleared the administration of insinuations that it had a hand in the ongoing conflict between Smartmatic and TIM.

"You can’t link TIM’s withdrawal to the administration because the administration has backed up automation 100 percent. In fact, the opposition in the House and the Senate have opposed automation and in a way they got what they wished for," he said.

"Maybe he (Antunez) just wanted to extract money but we as lawyers don’t want to think like that so we have to ascribe the influence of the opposition to automation," he added.

Comelec officials said they were not giving up on the plan to have electronic elections in 2010 despite the conflict between Smartmatic and TIM.

Melo said now that the two companies are talking, they might be able to find a compromise and fulfill their commitment.

Officials of the two companies also voiced determination to push through with the computerization project, acknowledging that backing out of the lucrative deal would erode their credibility, he added.

Meanwhile, Nograles is appealing to all sectors of society to allow all the parties in the automation issue a chance to resolve any and all problems that could derail the automation program.

"We can always understand birth pains. But automation is an inevitable recourse in the process of cleansing our antiquated electoral processes," he said.

Stressing that time is fleeting, Nograles urged that there is no other timely opportunity to "refurbish and reinvigorate our electoral processes but in the coming 2010 elections."

"There is still time. Let’s not waste it," he stressed. (PNA) scs/LGI

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