Aquino maintains commanding lead in Philippines election

Only 400 of 76,000 voting machines broke down during polling and casualty toll so far is a low nine killed and 12 injured.

Voters wait their turn at a polling station in Manila yesterday. Problems with some voting machines resulted in inordinate delays. Cheryl Ravelo / Reuters
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MANILA // Presidential front runner Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino was poised for a decisive victory in the Philippines' first automated elections yesterday despite technical breakdowns and long queues.

Last night, unofficial tallies of 57 per cent of votes cast showed Mr Aquino well ahead with 40.6 per cent, followed by the former president Joseph Estrada with 25.7 per cent, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said. Along with the queues and technical problems, stifling heat and names missing from electoral rolls were among the problems that greeted Filipinos as they went to the polls. Apart from isolated incidents of violence in parts of the country, which is not unusual in Philippines elections, the process was better than most people had expected. By early evening, the military said nine people were killed and 12 injured in violence during the day.

The Comelec said the turnout was around 75 per cent of the 50.7 million registered voters. Bobby Tuazon, the director of the Centre for People Empowerment in Governance, a public policy think tank based in Manila, said: "Now the people have cast their ballots, the next big test will be in the electronic counting of the votes." Smartmatic-TIM, which won the contract for the automated ballot, said 400 of the 76,000 voting machines broke down during the polling but technicians managed to get 75 per cent of those working before the polls closed.

Cesar Zavarce, the Smartmatic president for the Asia-Pacific region, said during a press briefing that despite all the negative publicity heading into the elections over the machines, he was "pleased with the outcome". "Yes, voting started slowly but once the rhythm had set, it went quite quickly," Mr Zavarce said. In polling stations around Metro Manila, people began queuing hours before the polls opened at 7am in the hope of casting their ballots early but technical faults, missing names from electoral rolls and technical snags resulted in delays in many voting stations.

Cermina Monge, 20, a criminology student, said she waited more than two hours to vote at the Epifanio Delos Santos Elementary School in San Andres, Manila. A first-time voter, she said: "It was worth the wait." She said from the time she filled out her ballot paper and fed it into the precinct count optical scan machine, "it took about 10 minutes". As to whether the election will be free of fraud, she said: "That remains to be seen but I am confident."

Sister Madonna Intal, a poll watcher at the school, said: "So far so good. At first, some of the machines did not work and voting was suspended for 35 minutes until the problems were fixed. They are working now and people are voting and that is the most important thing." Jun Cabreza, the chairman of a barangay (suburban council) in San Andres, said: "There has been some confusion with people's names on electoral rolls but that is to be expected.

"I think there is a lot of apprehension because this is the first time people are voting in an automated election. Filipinos have been used to manual voting and all its associated problems with fraud and corruption," he said. Mr Cabreza said apart from the Epifanio Delos Santos Elementary School, nine other schools would process some 200,000 voters by the time the polls close. "And I can tell you last time it was 60 per cent for former president [Joseph] Estrada," he said breaking out in a broad grin.

Filipinos were electing a new president, vice-president, 12 senators, 280 members of the House of Representatives and 18,000 regional, municipal and local officials. North of Manila in Tarlac, Mr Aquino turned up to vote early only to be told that the voting machines had broken down. He waited more than five hours to cast his ballot in sweltering heat with sweat pouring down his face. The outgoing president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had no such problem casting her ballot in her home province in Pampanga, north of Manila, where she is standing for congress. She breathed a sigh of relief when her ballot paper was accepted by the machine.

Much of the delay was because of the fact that elections this time were automated and the number of polling precincts reduced from 300,000 in the 2004 general elections to 76,347. Voting hours were extended from eight hours in 2004 to 12 hours - an extra hour was added to shorten the queues. Local Comelec officials declared a failure of elections in four municipalities in the province of Lanao del Sur, part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, when the election officials failed to turn up. It was reported that the officials were all related to local candidates contesting the elections.

In the 2007 midterm elections, 30 municipalities declared failure of elections, of which 20 were in Lanao del Sur. More than 250,000 police and troops were deployed throughout the country to keep violence down for the election. The military spokesman, Col Ricardo Nepomuceno, said the election was peaceful and deaths on the day were much lower than in previous elections. "So far, this has been the most peaceful election if we will compare it to the previous elections," he told ABS CBN television. "We hope this will hold tonight and until the counting of the votes is over," he said. * With additional reporting by Reuters