China might sabotage 2016 polls – Comelec

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Wednesday, September 16, said it has decided to have the Philippines’ vote-counting machines manufactured in Taiwan instead of China as earlier planned. 

“The biggest threat to the 2016 elections is China,” Comelec Commissioner Christian Lim said in a briefing at the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Citing an intelligence report, Lim explained that there might be an attempt by China to “sabotage” the 2016 elections.

Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista also said the poll body decided to have the 93,000 optical mark readers (OMRs) manufactured in Taiwan “because of current conditions.” Controversial firm Smartmatic is set to manufacture these vote-counting machines. 

Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China, considers the mainland or the People's Republic of China (PRC) illegitimate. The PRC considers Taiwan a renegade government.

The Comelec’s decision comes as the Philippines is caught in a dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

The Southeast Asian country expects an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, to rule against China by 2016 in a historic case over the contested waters. (READ:Philippines vows to smash China's strongest argument)

In a statement, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Li Lingxiao denied the Comelec's claim.

“The so-called 'attempt by China' to 'sabotage' the 2016 elections is totally groundless and a sheer fabrication,” Li said.

“China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference into other countries' internal affairs. The deal on vote-counting machines is between Comelec and Smartmatic,” she added.

Comelec fears 'trade embargo'

Still, in an interview with reporters, Lim said that as early July, the Comelec was warned that there might be “consequences” to Philippines-China relations “depending on the outcome of the arbitration with China. 

He said a poll commissioner with military contacts relayed this intelligence information to the Comelec en banc. 

Lim said in a mix of English and Filipino: “What if China decides to have a trade embargo, which bans trade, so any product made in China will not be coming to the Philippines? So you won’t have machines. There’s a lot of possibilities. It can also be a naval blockade.”

This is why the Comelec “wanted all deliveries of machines by January because we are anticipating the release of the arbitration decision,” which is expected in January 2016.

Lim added that the Comelec “made it a condition in the contract negotiations” with Smartmatic that the poll body wants the manufacturing to be done outside China. 

“We don’t want the complications,” he said. 

Smartmatic’s project manager for the 2016 elections, Marlon Garcia, pointed out that it was 5% more expensive for his company to transfer the manufacturing of the OMRs to Taiwan. 

"It was going to be more expensive for us, and we absorbed the cost for that, in order to increase the comfort of the commission on the manufacturing of the machines,” Garcia told reporters.

“We cannot blame the commission,” the Smartmatic official said.

He also said, however, that the manufacturing site “is going to be nearer to the Philippines as well, so that would make the shipments of the machines faster, and it’s going to be more accessible for all the Filipinos that would want to visit the facilities.”

Smartmatic discredited, too

Earlier, in August, the Comelec announced that the OMRs will be made in the Chinese city of Suzhou. 

Back then, Bautista downplayed concerns that the sea dispute between Manila and Beijing can affect the manufacturing of voting machines. (READ: Philippines' voting machines to be made in China)

Bautista explained that the manufacturing facilities “are actually controlled by US companies.”

He added: “Number two, siyempre ‘yung mga makinang ‘yan, ibabalik dito. Tapos no’n, titingnan nating lahat kung they are performing in accordance with the specifications and our expectations.”

(Number two, of course those machines will be delivered to the Philippines. After that, we will all check if they are performing in accordance with the specifications and our expectations.)

Even without the threat of a supposed sabotage by China, however, critics have discredited Smartmatic’s machines. Urging the Comelec to blacklist Smartmatic, they claim that Smartmatic’s machines can easily be rigged.

The Philippines used Smartmatic’s machines in its first two automated elections in 2010 and 2013. – Rappler.com