COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Filipinos braced themselves for allegations of fraud and more violence on Monday as a lengthy vote-count followed congressional and local elections marred by ambushes and shootouts.
At least six people were killed during polling, which was expected to maintain the political status quo. Grenades were lobbed at several targets, including the home of a council candidate in Manila’s financial district.
Vote-buying and cheating are practiced in some parts of the Philippines, where rival clans slug it out for lucrative public positions, but analysts said they were concerned attempts to manipulate results could be more widespread in this poll.
In the south, a traditional hotbed of electoral violence due to decades of communist and Muslim insurgency, explosions and gunfire were used to intimidate voters.
“It’s disgusting,” Somsri Hananuntasuk, the Thai coordinator of Asian Network for Free Elections, told Reuters. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Somsri, who was observing polling in Muslim villages in the south of the largely Catholic country, said money was openly handed over to voters and some ballot boxes were stuffed with illegal vote slips.
So far, over 120 people have been killed since the campaign began three months ago, but the body count is lower than the 189 murdered in the last elections, in 2004.
“The Philippines is at a crossroads as we wait for the proclamation of winners,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in a statement after casting her ballot at a schoolhouse in the town of Lubao, north of Manila.
“There was intense rivalry during the campaign, but we should have a good heart, win or lose.”
Despite her own unpopularity, Arroyo’s allies are expected to sweep the 275-seat House of Representatives and most of the 18,000 or so local government posts up for grabs through superior grassroots machinery and a divided opposition at the local level.
But anti-administration candidates are tipped to strengthen their grip on the Senate by winning a majority of the 12 seats being contested.
In the previous chamber, the opposition already held a majority in the Senate, allowing them to block administration-sponsored bills.
At least three quarters of around 45 million eligible voters went to the polls on Monday, according to the Commission on Elections.
Voting officially ended at 3 p.m. and thousands of public school teachers, armed with paper and pens, started counting ballots in classrooms across the archipelago.
The laborious exercise, watched by observers from rival parties, is expected to be completed by noon on Tuesday.
Initial results for local posts could start trickling in on Thursday but for the Senate, final results could take from three weeks to about a month.
Critics of the manual system argue it can easily be manipulated by paying off counters and switching ballot boxes.
“Most of the possible cheating will be done tomorrow or tonight,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, which has over 2,000 people observing this year’s vote.
“There are a lot more places that are of concern. There are a lot of pressures and it is overt.”
Critics of Arroyo, whose term lasts until 2010, have said the administration might rig the election, as many allege it did during the presidential vote in 2004.
Commentators have said any systematic poll fraud could lead to unrest.
Additional reporting by Manny Mogato, Dolly Aglay, Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema