Philippines to proceed with Monday's presidential polls despite counting machine defects

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Presidential elections will proceed next week as scheduled and a voting machine supplier has promised to correct defects that had sparked fears of chaotic failure in the Philippines' first automated vote, officials said Wednesday.

The Commission on Elections ordered the recall Tuesday of 76,000 memory cards to be used in optical counting machines after some malfunctioned in tests. The problem sparked rumors, spread through cell phone text messages, that Monday's vote may be postponed.

"There is no truth to that," Elections Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal told a news conference. "We have not voted on any postponement.

"Despite the problems, we hope that we can set aside the finger-pointing, the bickering and the text brigades that only fan unfounded rumors," Larrazabal said.

The glitches were discovered just six days before 50 million Filipino voters elect a new president, vice president and officials to fill nearly 18,000 national and local posts in elections that have been sullied by suspicions of possible vote-rigging and violence that has claimed dozens of lives.

Opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino III, who has topped pre-election popularity surveys, strongly objected to any postponement of the elections, saying a delay can result in "a potentially disastrous crisis of a leadership vacuum" when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down on June 30.

Aquino blasted elections officials for mishandling the automation of the vote count and suggested they should resign. "Their efforts have so far only yielded disastrous results," he told a news conference.

Smartmatic, a consortium that won the 7.2 billion peso ($160 million) contract to supply the counting machines, has assured the commission that it can fix the problem, test the new memory cards and deliver the machines all over the archipelago in time for Monday's vote, Larrazabal said.

Private corporations have promised to lend more than a dozen helicopters and planes, and air force helicopters will be on standby to help, Larrazabal said.

Cesar Flores, Asia-Pacific regional head of Smartmatic, said the problem was traced to "human error" and was not an act of sabotage. He said Smartmatic officials are committed to work for fast and clean polls and promised they would not flee the country amid the troubles.

"If you want my passport, you can hold it in escrow," Flores said.

About 30,000 memory cards from Hong Kong and 14,000 from Taiwan have been purchased and will be shipped to Manila on Thursday. There is also a plan to recycle and use some of the defective cards, Flores said.

Delivery of the optical counting machines with the new cards can be completed on the eve of the elections, he said.

The memory cards, which contain instructions for the machines, did not properly read blank spaces in the ballots for local candidates because of an error in its configuration, Flores said Tuesday.

Henrietta de Villa, of the church-backed election watchdog Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, said the recalls had hurt confidence in the automated voting system, but noted that the defects had been detected and authorities were providing assurances that the problems would be solved.

An influential business group, the Makati Business Club, renewed calls for the election commission to implement a manual count of votes for at least five top posts, including president, vice president, House members, governors and mayors.

The commission last week rejected the proposal.