It would be Ryan Lazaro’s first time to vote if he got lucky October 31 and was able to register to vote in next May’s Philippine national elections. The 19-year-old student was one of hundreds of people who lined up that week outside a mall in Manila in a desperate attempt to register to vote just before the registration deadline.
September 30 was the original deadline to register to vote for the much-awaited polls. It was extended until the last week of October to accommodate those unable to go out during the lockdowns.
As the new deadline approached, throngs of people wanting to register headed to polling centers, competing to make the deadline. Registration centers could only accommodate 300 people a day, based on time estimates and prevailing public health protocols.
“I’m tired and sleepless and I’m dealing with the fact that I might miss the chance to register to vote,” Lazaro told VOA, adding that he and his friends had arrived at the center 10 hours before it opened, but the slots were already filled
Since it was already the last day to register, though, they decided to take their chances and lined up with no guarantee of registration.
“This is our third attempt. Let’s see,” he said.
The Philippines will be having one of Asia’s biggest elections next year in the middle of a pandemic, with almost 4 million Filipinos having contracted the coronavirus and more than 40,000 dead from the disease. It is a chance for the country to pick new leaders who might have a different strategy to control the pandemic that wiped out millions of jobs and drove many to hunger.
Observers say the May election will be one of the most hotly contested in recent Philippine history. It is seen as a referendum between extending President Rodrigo Duterte’s power and influence or shifting to a candidate who promises a more democratic government. The widespread allegations of corruption and human rights violations during Duterte’s six-year regime are among of the issues facing voters on election day.
The Philippine Commission on Elections had said the number of voters might reach a record 65 million. The Philippine population is pegged at 110 million, and only those aged 18 and above may vote.
Election officials say the October 31 was the final deadline and extending the registration period might delay preparations for the elections. Nevertheless, the target number of voters was registered.
“You are looking at a voter population of almost 65 million voters. That is a huge percentage of our national population,” James Jimenez, election commission spokesperson, told an October 27 press conference.
Voters across the country endured long lines, some camping out and spending the night at registration centers just to secure a slot for the morning opening. Despite their sacrifice and efforts, some were not successful.
The registration was extended for three weeks from its original deadline last September because of public clamor and pressure from Congress, which passed a law to extend the deadline. Despite that, there were still Filipinos not able to register.
“We find ways to come here because we need to work. If we don’t go to work, we will have nothing to eat,” said 54-year-old Lorelay Balera, who had tried to register until the deadline last week.
After sleeping on the floor for hours, she did not make it to the cut.
“All we hear is ‘cut off, cut off.’ The system isn’t working for us. If they want us to vote, how can we vote if they won’t accept us?”
Despite the lockdowns that prevented people from registering earlier, the turnout exceeded the commission’s expectation, an indication that Filipinos want to have a say on the affairs of the country, observers say.
“It’s in record number,” Ona Caritos, the executive director of Legal Network for Truthful Elections, an elections watchdog.
“Despite the pandemic we will have 65 million registered voters for election so that's a good number and that's a historical number for the Philippines,” she said.
The commission has conducted the first of a series of voter simulations, which included a time and motion study, to ensure that polling centers across the country will be in compliance with public safety protocols.
With low vaccination rates compared to other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines had one of the worst outbreaks in the region. It is projected, however, that 70 million people will be inoculated by April, a month before the elections.
Election watchdogs are calling on the commission to release guidelines and protocols on campaigning and on voting on election day as soon as possible.
“That's our call and that's our request for COMELEC to release the guidelines as early as possible so that people will be informed, they will be educated especially about the new guidelines and protocols and civil society, organizations like ours would be able to demand in the information dissemination campaign,” Caritos said, referring to the elections commission by its acronym.
After waiting for 32 hours, Lazaro and his friends successfully registered.