THERE was sad news last weekend about a Benguet farmers’ group that was purposely not invited to a farmers’ congress held this month at the capitol, following written and unwritten petitions by the group against illegally imported carrots, onions, other vegetables, and even strawberries that had been flooding lowland and Manila markets.

In the past nine months, the sale by Benguet farmers of locally produced vegetables was low due to the illegal importation of carrots and other vegetables resulting in some P2.5 million losses daily.

The League of Associations at the La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post (LALTVTP) claimed it incurred around 40 percent lesser order in carrots in those months. It is estimated that some 38 million kilos of illegally imported carrots flood the markets monthly. 

The farmers’ league, representing around 10,000 members of farmworkers and organizations, decried the lack of action by LGU officials and a district representative over complaints against vegetable smuggling lodged by them in July last year.

While already feeling helpless, the complainant-farmers were further branded as fabricators despite the evidence they presented.

The LALTVTP members were told that a government representative had filed a complaint in the Lower House but nothing came out of it. Instead, it was in the senate where the smuggling problem was discussed which stopped the sale of imported vegetables for a while.

Congressional bet and Itogon mayor, Victorio Palangdan, who was asked by the farmers’ group for his comment during a prayer rally in Loo, Buguias said, aside from reviewing the Free Trade Agreement which includes the Philippines as a signatory, vegetable smuggling could be prevented once and for all if officials stop pretending that they feel the sentiments of farmers.  

Another alarming news was that a businessman-member of congress was pressuring concerned individuals into leasing out the Benguet Agri-Pinoy Trading Center (BAPTC) to his businessman friend believed to be his dummy.

Let us all be aware, if the lease agreement pushes through, the old La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post behind the municipal hall will be forced to stop operating by hook or by crook. Farm to market deliveries will have to be directed to the BAPTC to make the lease very profitable. 

In a casual conversation with friends and traders at the LTVTP, I was told that they were very much aware of the sneaky moves of a migrant businessman-official in their midst. They know that if LGU officials easily give way and are blinded by the color of money, the Benguet vegetable industry – the only industry we have will slip from our hands.

This single reason is enough to make the electorate of this agricultural province vote for the ones who sincerely feel their sentiments; politicians who know the culture and lifeways of Igorots and Cordillerans born and raised here.

But our votes should be monitored and counted as they come out of the vote-counting machine, one of the stupidest and nontransparent inventions in this transparent century that was allowed operation by law.

Elections in this country can never be transparent and secure under the fully Automated Election System (AES) since we started using it in 2010. Nobody knows if our votes are counted correctly under a fully automated election system.

Before every election, lawmakers talk about reforming election laws to make it responsive to the present time and to make them more protected from election fraud. But in all the elections we have witnessed, there were always complaints of cheating.

It only shows that elections here are always manipulated. Therefore, it is terribly necessary for lawmakers to amend election rules in such a way that cheating by any means is minimized or eradicated.

In the 2016 elections, there were unconfirmed reports that eight senatorial bets allegedly paid the operators of counting machines to win. This could be the very reason why lawmakers in congress have not moved a finger against the company because they have been benefiting from its presence since the first day that it was commissioned.

Election watchdogs and political bets in the past complained that in many instances, the transmission of votes for a certain candidate, especially politicians vying for national positions were intentionally delayed for reasons we do not know.  

As a simple solution, election lawyer Glenn Chong and Senator Imee Marcos, on separate occasions talked about adopting the hybrid election system where voting will still be by shading an election ballot but counting will be done manually at the precinct level using the old “tara” style of counting votes.

The HES would require the manual tallying of votes on a wide Manila paper to ensure that all vote counting was held in full public view. Whatever is counted manually in a locality is transmitted by electronic servers to the next recipient. It is hybrid.

A video recording and live-streaming for future fact-checking would also be shot. Every step of the election process must be open to the public because the Comelec gave too much importance to speed at the expense of transparency since AES was used in 2010.

Vote-counting became messy under the AES and irregularities were reported such as the early transmission of votes, installation of an additional device known as a “queuing server” in the middle of the transmission process, script change in the middle of the live transmission of results, foreign access in election servers and incomplete transmissions of results.

The reason why there is a provision in the AES that calls for a random manual audit of votes is that there is no transparency in reading ballots. It is open to manipulation. In the case of a hybrid counting of votes, the manual process at the very start of the counting at the precinct level will ensure transparency and the security of our votes.

The HES would surely be an additional workload for teachers and election officers, but this was the old system that we used and there was transparency in the counting of votes until someone in Malacanang proposed the AES for money and control of winning votes.

I am reminded of the elections of not so long ago. After voting has stopped at 3 pm, people gather in front of the polling places and wait for the start of the manual counting. Then a big tally board is put up in the market plaza or public gyms where the votes of the candidates are totaled.

This is what makes manual elections interesting. People know who won in their localities before midnight and begin tossing gin even before the liquor ban is lifted. We do not know if the HES will be implemented in 2022.