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Philippine Opposition Protests Early Vote Count Reports - 2004-05-25

The Philippine opposition has reacted angrily to a leaked report that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has narrowly won this month's elections. They say the leaking of the vote count is illegal, and contrary to their own count, which shows movie star-turned-politician Fernando Poe Junior leading the race.

Two top officials from the Commission on Elections, after making sure their names would not be reported, told journalists late Monday that the unofficial vote count showed Mrs. Arroyo leading the race by some 900,000 votes, a narrow margin of 39.5 percent to Mr. Poe's 36.6 percent.

Opposition leaders immediately denounced the leaks and threatened legal action against the commission, which is generally known as COMELEC. Under the constitution, it is up to Congress to make the official count of votes for president and vice president. COMELEC is responsible for counting votes for the Senate, but COMELEC chairman Benjamin Abolos says the commission also keeps track of presidential votes, which appear on the same ballot. Congress was due to begin counting the votes Tuesday.

A private election watchdog group, the National Movement for Free Elections, has also put Mrs. Arroyo in the lead by a narrow margin, and said it expected her lead to stand up.

Namfrel, as it is known, is authorized by the government to do a "quick count" of vote results, to give people an idea of what is going on during the laborious process of gathering results from the country's 7,100 islands.

Mike Romero, campaign spokesman for Mr. Poe, says the leak by COMELEC officials violated the constitution, and opposition lawyers are looking for ways to address the problem legally. "In short, the COMELEC made a major violation of the constitution, they should not have done that and they should answer to the people for that move that they made," he said. Mr. Poe's supporters have been alleging that the May 10 elections suffered from fraud and irregularities, but Namfrel and international election observers say the election was generally fair. Although members of Mr. Poe's camp have threatened to take to the streets to protest fraud, Mr. Romero says the opposition has no plans to mount massive protests, and will look instead into legal avenues to address its concerns. Mr. Poe has said he will accept the outcome if he believes the elections are honest.

Mrs. Arroyo was elected vice president under Joseph Estrada in 1998. She took over the presidency in 2001, after a military-backed popular revolt ousted Mr. Estrada over allegations of massive corruption.