By JULIE JAVELLANA-SANTOS
Overseas workers in Saudi Arabia are complaining about the inconvenient schedule for the registration of overseas absentee voters there.
Francis Oca, long-time advocate of overseas absentee voting (OAV) said in a letter to Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia Antonio Villamor that "the announced schedule/timing of the registration is not conducive to attaining the DFA/COMELEC's goal of registering at least a million OFW voters for the 2010 election."
The Philippine embassy earlier announced that registrants would be entertained from 8 am to 4 pm, Saturday till Wednesday. This would mean there would be no registration on Thursday and Friday, the heaviest days during the past two registrations since the weekend in Saudi Arabia falls on these days.
"Parang hindi tama na Saturdays to Wednesdays. Pano naman yung mga 7am to 4pm ang work, ang time lang e Thursday and Friday?" Oca said.
OFW Roberto Pardinas added "oo nga, mahirap masunod ang ganitong schedule kailangan pa lumiban sa trabaho."
The head of the United OFW, Eli Mua said "parang joke-jok lang itong gingawa nila sa OFWs. Those schedules are meant to discredit and downgrade this registration. It is meant to discourage the OFWs from registering; they seem not to help the thousands; just pleasing the few."
"Hindi puwede mag-absent ang OFW at hindi nag-bibigay ng special leave ang mga companya dito. Wala silang paki-alam sa registration natin; ang mga managers na ibang lahi would not give a a minute for our own OAV - Thursday and Friday lang makakarehistro ang 90 % sa mga OFWs. Magagalit naman tayo dito kung ganyan naman na walang walang considerasyon sa atin," Mua said.
Returnees still in CLOAV
OFWs have even more complaints about the proposed conduct for absentee voting. There are still a lot of cases in the certified list of overseas absentee voters (CLOAV) of misspelled names and overseas workers who had transferred to other countries.
The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) hopes to correct this during the registration period, which officially started Feb. 1 and will last for seven months until Aug. 31, 2009. During this period, all overseas Filipinos wanting to cast their ballots in the presidential elections in 2010 can sign up at Philippine embassies and consulates abroad.
Hopefully, the outcome this time will be better because the COMELEC has been through two previous registrations for OAV.
For the initial registration in 2003 (for the May 2004 elections), there were 361,457 registrants compared to 142,665 during the registration in 2006 (for the 2007 polls).
The COMELEC attributed the reduction in registrants to the fact that the 2007 polls were merely mid-term elections. They said the 2004 polls were presidential elections thus generating much more interest.
They overlooked the fact that some of the obstacles already present in 2003 were never corrected.
The Overseas Absentee Voting Secretariat of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA-OAVS), formerly lead agency in the implementation of OAV said overseas Filipinos usually fail to comply with registration requirements because of distance (from the nearest embassy or consulate), nature of work, and employer's restrictions.
In many cases, the OAVS said overseas Filipinos are geographically dispersed and work or reside in areas far from the designated registration centers – the embassies and consulates. Unfortunately, the DFA-OAVS said there are only 87 facilities (81 Posts, 3 POLOs and 3 MECOs) which serve as voting centers.
For this reason, the embassies have partnered with employers of large numbers of Filipinos to either bus the employees to a registration site or conduct field registrations.
Community involvement in Saudi Arabia
Nevertheless, the numbers have not been good. Probably why this time around, one group is not taking any chances.
The Partidong Pangdaigdigang Pilipino, whose main aim is to get at least one overseas Filipino worker into congress in 2010, is partnering with the embassy in Riyadh to conduct voter information and education campaigns there. The biggest concentration of OFWs is in Saudi Arabia, which also happens to be the number one destination of OFWs.
Rudy Dianalan, president of the Jeddah chapter of PPP said "we have brainstormed the theme and one of those brought up also involved 3 P's: Pagrehistro, Pagboto, Pagbabago."
He said they plan to revive camp visits, lectures at various work sites since "this
helped generate the bulk of Jeddah's 33,000 registrations and 16,000
voters in 2004." In the 2007 elections where the community had not
been involved, there were only 3,000 additional registrants and just
6,000 votes cast.
Similar campaigns are being waged elsewhere and they all involve community involvement.
Here in Manila, OAV advocates are continuing to push for amendments to the overseas absentee voting bill.
Ellene Sana, Executive Director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, said the amendments in question will scrap the affidavit of intent to return which has been required of Filipino immigrants abroad. This has also proven a deterrent to Filipinos overseas, particularly to green card holders in the US who fear that their residency will be affected by executing this affidavit.
This requirement was included in the law to keep the overseas Filipino "connected" to the Philippines.
That's not all, though.
Longer registration period
Sana said her group and other civil society groups as well are lobbying for a longer registration period for overseas absentee voters. They are protesting its drastic cut from ten to seven months. From the original Dec. 1, 2008 to August 31, 2009, the registration period has been shortened from February 1 to August 31, 2009.
"I do not understand why the period for continuing registration of local voters is one year while that for overseas absentee voting is only seven months," Sana complained.
John Leonard Monterona, Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator of Migrante International, earlier said that shortening the duration of the OAV registration to seven months is unreasonable, unjust and unconstitutional.
But Nicodemo Ferrer, COMELEC Commissioner in charge of OAV said the time span is enough. Preparations for the 2009 registration began as early as April 2008 when consultations were held with non-governmental organizations, the DFA-OAVSand the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO).
Ferrer then proposed a "massive information dissemination campaign" for the 2010 elections. Filipinos overseas will be allowed to vote for the president, vice-president, senators and party-list representative.
His fellow commissioner, Rene Sarmiento said a lot of the former registrants will be removed from the voters' lists because the ruling is if an overseas absentee voter fails to cast his ballot for two consecutive elections, he will have to re-enlist. Since the first registration in 2003, many OFWs have transferred residences and/or ended their contracts and have returned to the Philippines.
This year, the COMELEC is expecting at least a million registrants.
Former DFA Undersecretary Rafael Seguis said they are targeting one million absentee voters to register for the coming elections. In preparation for this, COMELEC officials in Manila even visited consular posts abroad to train foreign affairs personnel on the process of registering overseas Filipinos.