When Principles No Longer Suffice: NAMFREL and the 2013 Elections in the Lens of an Intern

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.3, No.1
by Ruth Genevieve A. Lumibao, BS Political Science, UP Manila
(Editor's note: Ruth was one of NAMFREL's 8 interns from UP Manila for the 2013 elections. She was joined by Via Cabatu, Kristine Cardona, Joana Castro, Eliana Cortes, Fatima del Rosario, Karel Galang, and Roma Monzon.)

There is no greater volunteerism than that of protecting democracy itself.

As Political Science students, the main objective of the practicum was for us to see the dynamics of theory and practice. Our usual curriculum allowed 200 hours spent in either a government or non-government office, if not in a far-flung area for immersion trips.

Since it was election season, the Department of Social Sciences (DSS) of UP Manila preferred to have us spend the full 200 hours in a nongovernment organization or in an immersion. In the past academic years, the students were given a hundred hours for both government and nongovernment organizations. The feedback we received from the upper batch, however, was usually of warning rather than encouragement. We feared having to succumb into clerical work, or worse, being told to make coffee instead of reports.

Ruth (second row, first from right), with the other trainees and volunteers)
“You will not be used as accessories. We will treat you as part of the staff,” Mr. Paolo Maligaya, NAMFREL Senior Operations Associate, told us during our orientation. We could only muster a sigh of relief. And after that, what started as a practicum became pure volunteerism.

In the Spirit of Volunteerism

Our first NAMFREL experience was during the NAMFREL National Assembly in March 2013. The election season marked the commencement of NAMFREL’s six projects: Voters’ Education Program (VEP), Voters’ List Monitoring (VLM), Mobile Pollwatching (MPW), Logistics Tracking (LT), Electoral Finance (EF), and Random Manual Audit Monitoring (RMAM). Since there were eight of us in the practicum, three were assigned to the project teams, and the other five to the different regional desks. I was assigned to the Mobile Pollwatching project, which was under NAMFREL National Council member Mr. Dammy Magbual’s supervision. Thus, I was thrust not only in monitoring the project but also in sending memos and making statements. Although I was not directly in contact with NAMFREL’s chapters as much as the regional desk officers were, I had to make sure that their concerns were addressed adequately.

Our first day in the office marked our first meeting with Mr. Telibert Laoc, NAMFREL National Council member, now known to us for his favorite catch-phrase, “Your success is our success.” He did live up to it, anyway. If anything, we were treated as equals. Our opinions always counted, and our suggestions always mattered. Never could we find another organization that will treat novice election observers, rather trainees or interns, as important as NAMFREL did. After less than a week of being integrated in the office environment and work, we
began our 8 a.m.-8 p.m. shift – not because it was required, but because we, ourselves, wanted to do so.

The workload increased exponentially. We did not complain because it was the first time that we felt what we were doing actually mattered – how a single unanswered phone call can discourage a chapter, how a simple encouraging memo can ignite the spirit of our field volunteers, and how a minimal mistake in reporting the details of an event can put disgrace upon NAMFREL’s reputation.

In the middle of our practicum, we realized that we were near to exceeding the required number of hours, and we were expecting a five-day shift on election week. But the requirement no longer applied. We continued our 8 a.m.-8 p.m. work hours, and we would even exceed until 10 p.m., up to the point that some of the staff already offered to transform our working area into a dormitory.

Even half-way through our practicum, we were no longer interns. Instead, we vowed to continue working, but now as volunteers. For all we knew, we were doing something that we learned to love in the span of less than a month. What we gained from it materially was not of any importance. All good things came afterward.
.. From Principles to Dynamics

We knew the basic principle of election: voting for people who will be vested with enormous powers to lead the country. By virtue of the elections, our political leaders become accountable to the populace. As such, it becomes the greatest foundation for good governance. The principles were very clear; the dynamics, however, were yet to be identified.

We knew how the elections worked in face value. Whatever happens beyond the surface are mere accounts that we could read or hear elsewhere. But to verify information and to be in contact with NAMFREL’s local chapters enabled us to have a clearer image of what really happens during elections. It is to our utmost dismay to find that the very foundation of our democracy can no longer be relied upon. But this does not mean that we should lose faith in the system. Rather, it is NAMFREL’s duty to ensure that it will be improved.
Vote buying, electoral violence, use of government resources, threat and intimidation, biased media reports, private armies – we can learn all these through the news. But what would it feel like if you talked to someone from Mindanao, reporting to the National Headquarters, in the middle of a cross-fire? What would it feel like if you talked to someone who is reporting about vote buying activities, but reminds you to keep his/her anonymity for safety reasons? What if you learned that field volunteers already fear for their safety because candidates can identify if they are members of NAMFREL?

The volunteers knew the risks that their job entailed. They knew the sacrifices they were about to make. But as Mr. Lester Toribio, chair of NAMFREL Manila chapter said in one of our meetings, “Kung hindi tayo, sino?”

The election was both important and vulnerable, and it always will be – that is why election watchdogs exist.

The 2013 Elections was the best stage to observe the interplay of civil society, government, and COMELEC. NAMFREL may have exposed truths about the unreliability of PCOS machines, but it was never our intention to defame the elections. In fact, it was our intention to make them more transparent and reliable. We may have exposed realities of vote buying activities in almost every part of the Philippines, but it was never out intention to dispense the importance of voting.

NAMFREL may have exposed many truths and realities to the point of risking its accreditation, but never did it waver from its mandate.

As UP students, we have always been reminded to give back to the country. When and in what manner was up to our discretion. NAMFREL provided us that opportunity. It was an office, with a network of field volunteers that we gradually learned to treat as our family.

To the local chapters who may have wondered who we were in the beginning, we have offered you our time and dedication, and it would be more than an honor to know if we have done justice to your sacrifices.

To the National Headquarters, we express our gratitude for accommodating us, for treating us as a real staff, and for trusting us in handling the big responsibility of monitoring the projects and communicating with the local chapters. Although you may repeatedly tell us that we have been a big help, I believe that the favor is still ours to return. We owe you our experience, our knowledge, and our newfound opportunities.

We may have sacrificed sleep, and we may have acquired deeper eye bags for that matter. We may have had arguments with some local chapters, and we may have faltered a little. We may have been drained of energy and we may have struggled. But we have stood our ground. All this, motivated by a simple question: “Kung hindi tayo, sino?”

Now, 2016 awaits.