Automation deal signed

MANILA, Philippines - The Commission on Elections (Comelec) finally signed yesterday the P7.2-billion automation contract with the joint venture firm of Smartmatic International Corp. and Total Information Management Corp. (TIM), signaling the start of full-blast preparations for computerized polls in 2010.

The contract signing, threatened by the filing of a petition for a temporary restraining order by the Concerned Citizens Movement led by lawyer Harry Roque, pushed through after the Supreme Court (SC) did not issue a TRO.

The signing did not come easy for the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM as they had to hurdle several issues including questions about the bidding and the bickering between the partner companies.

The signing yesterday was delayed for almost three hours as Comelec Chairman Jose Melo said that some “minor editorial changes” had to be made on the 25-page contract.

“We are confident that there will be no TRO. I’d like to emphasize that we signed the contract notwithstanding the fact that there was a petition filed yesterday. It’s not that we are sort of ignoring the Supreme Court, but this project, the election, is not like any other construction project. We cannot postpone the election and we have to meet some timeline. Things must be done at a particular time,” Melo noted in a press briefing.

Representing Smartmatic was chief finance officer Armando Yanes, while TIM was represented by senior vice-president Salvador Aque.

The joint venture was represented by chairman of the board Juan Villa Jr.

The budget earmarked for the automation of the May 10, 2010 local and national polls was P11.2 billion but the bid offer of Smartmatic-TIM was only P7.2 billion.

The joint venture corporation was immediately issued a “notice to proceed” by Ferdinand Rafanan, director of the Comelec’s Law Department and head of the Special Bids and Awards Committee.

The notice will enable Smartmatic-TIM to go on with the manufacture of 82,200 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines in Smartmatic’s plant in Taiwan.

A machine will be installed in each precinct for the election.

The Comelec has created a project management team that will work closely with Smartmatic-TIM.

For the joint venture’s part, spokesman Cesar Flores said that they are confident that the Comelec “will be able to answer the petitions properly.”

“Everyone has their constitutional right to file a case. We have no say in that. But that will not stop us from pushing through with this project,” he added.

Flores said that Smartmatic-TIM intends to go “full speed” ahead with the contract already signed and the “notice to proceed” issued.

Around 2,000 machines are expected to be manufactured daily. The joint venture will have to start delivering the machines from November to January next year.

Rafanan said the Comelec would pay Smartmatic-TIM on staggered basis or in 13 “milestones,” pertaining to categorized project deliverables.

He added the last payment would be made after the election in an amount equivalent to 15 percent or P108-billion balance of the P7.2-billion contact price.

No TRO from SC

Lawyer Jose Midas Marquez, spokesman for the High Court, said the Comelec was allowed to proceed with discretion and sign the contract with the consortium “since the Court has not issued a TRO.”

He said the Court instead set deliberation of the petition filed by a group of citizens led by Roque during session on Tuesday next week.

Marquez explained that under Court procedures, a petition for TRO would immediately be assigned to a justice who would review the merit and submit a recommendation to Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

He said that Puno did not receive any word from the justice in charge of the petition against poll automation that would have prevented the signing of the contract yesterday.

“You can say that the Court did not see the urgency in issuing a TRO,” he told reporters in an interview.

Marquez stressed that the non-issuance of TRO did not mean dismissal of the petition of Roque. He said it only meant that the justice who handled the petition did not see the urgency to rule on the prayer for TRO.

“We still have sufficient remedies available to protect what petitioners want to protect. It’s not too late,” he said.

Among the possible rulings the SC may hand down is a status quo ante order, which could bring the controversy back to its status prior to the signing of the agreement.

MalacaƱang, however, expressed optimism that the suit would not stop the conduct of “honest, peaceful, orderly and credible” elections next year.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said Roque’s petition is part of the democratic process “so we trust that the Supreme Court will resolve this issue expeditiously and judicially.”

“I have heard some people say it is obstructionism in the highest order and a publicity gimmick of some people, but everybody has a right to do that,” Remonde said in a press briefing.

“We will continue to hope that we will be able to succeed in achieving our vision of a more honest, peaceful, orderly and credible elections in 2010 through poll automation,” he said.

Roque: Not on GMA’s watch

Asked for reaction, Roque said he remains hopeful that they would get a favorable decision from the Court.

“Implementation could still be restrained. In any case, let it not be said that we did not warn about automated failure of elections and automated cheating,” he said.

Roque and the other petitioners sought issuance of a writ of prohibitory injunction or temporary restraining order that would either stop the signing of contract or prevent delivery of payment to the consortium.

The group has proposed two possible alternatives for the automation of next year’s polls: pilot testing of other firms in select cities or use of the software of the Open System of the University of the Philippines that would require the government to only spend P2 billion for the computers.

Roque and his group, however, clarified that they are not against the automation of election. What they don’t want is a system that violated rules and is susceptible to cheating.

“I am here as a concerned citizen. We all want automated elections but only after the term of President Arroyo because I believe that there would still be cheating if automation is done under her watch,” said one of the petitioners.

Election jobs available

Meanwhile, the Comelec is looking to tap “information technology-capable” individuals to assist the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) in overseeing poll precincts, according to Commissioner Rene Sarmiento.

“Under the (poll automation) law, there should be an IT-capable person certified by the Department of Science and Technology who will assist the BEIs. In regular precincts, the BEIs must be composed of three, including the chairman,” he said.

Regular precincts have some 200 voters each.

But in clustered precincts, the BEIs – who are primarily public school teachers – are composed of five individuals including the chairman. These voting centers have some 1,000 voters each.

Sarmiento said the IT-capable individuals, who would be paid honoraria, could come from government offices.

“If it won’t be enough, the Comelec, under its plenary powers, can get from the private sector. We may need some 80,000 individuals (or one for each precinct),” he said.

But the poll body will define the parameters within which the IT persons could interfere to “ensure secrecy and credibility and integrity of the whole process.”

Sarmiento added that even the technical persons of Smartmatic who would help in the election would have limited functions and they would not be allowed to linger inside the voting precincts.


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