Today’s column: “The right to vote”

The deadline for overseas absentee voting registration has been extended for another month, until end of October this year. This is welcome news for millions of Filipinos overseas, a sector most responsible for keeping our economy afloat.

Economically, our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have undeniable clout because of the billions of dollar remittances that they send. Politically, this sector has yet to make its collective political influence felt, either through the polls, or in garnering sufficient sectoral seats in Congress.

Still, the 2007 elections represent another opportunity for this sector to come together and form a political bloc of its own. The OFW sector needs to look at how Filipino veterans, in spite of their dwindling number, were able to unite their sons and daughters as descendants of heroes and champions of veterans’ rights. Until now, the veterans’ sector is eagerly courted because it is close-knit, and the views of the elders have a profound impact on their respective families.

And so, for another month more, our OFWs can avail of the miracle of suffrage to assert their presence beyond the economics of remittances. The first step is in applying as overseas absentee voters at the nearest embassy or consulate. Departing workers can also register at the ground floor of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration or even before their flights are called, at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

As of September 21, the records of the Overseas Absentee Voting office at the Department of Foreign Affairs reveal the total number of new registrants to be just 120,722. This represents a steep decline from the total number of registrants for the 2004 elections at 364,187.

In the POEA and NAIA, registration totaled only 33,174 and 37,650 respectively as of August 31, 2006. This despite the simple requirements for registration: passport and filled-out OAV registration form.

The right to suffrage for Filipinos overseas was not easily or swiftly obtained. Though enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, the absentee voting provision in reference to our overseas workers required an enabling law, and I recall that in all Congresses, several measures tried to cross the bar of history but were tied up in the legislative mill until archived for posterity.

Finally, an Overseas Absentee Voting Law was signed by President Gloria Arroyo on February 13, 2003, to the jubilation of OFW leaders and various groups who worked hard to make this law a reality.

My late father, then Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas F. Ople, was extremely jubilant. He was one of the authors of the overseas absentee voting provision in the Constitution. He was also one among several legislators who consistently authored legislative proposals on overseas absentee voting. I am most thankful that all his efforts came full circle when we were at the Department of Foreign Affairs, as the overseer of the very first registration process under this law. Unfortunately, he died before the 2004 when the very first OFW, a seafarer named Brigido Sevilla, cast his first vote on May 12, 2004, in Brunei.

Some cynics who believe that our workers overseas would not mind if their right to directly vote our president is abolished should revisit the records of the DFA and Comelec on the 2004 elections. They would know about how 83-year old Jose Evangelista and 76-year old Fenella Edelmaier Japay, overcame physical disability and distance just to be able to register at the Philippine Consulate in Toronto.

They would do well to recall the long queue of OFWs from the streets, winding through two flights of stairs and finally reaching the third floor of the Philippine Consulate in HongKong during the last few days of registration.

Here are voices from the recent past, based on a report submitted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Commission on Elections to Congress in 2004:

“Excited akong bumoto kaya maaga ako. It was worth the wait so I could exercise my right to vote.” – Ludivina Racca, first land-based voter in Hong Kong who arrived at the polling area at 5:30 am to get ahead of the crowd.

“I did not mind carrying my baby on my left arm while writing down the names of the President, Vice-President, 12 senators and a party-list representative. This is our chance as Overseas Filipino workers to have a say in our government by participating in the elections.” – Maria Teresa Javier, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

“This is why I am very glad that now, overseas voting already exists. Otherwise, I would have missed voting this election since I am a registered voter in Binan.” – Silveria Lopez de Leon, 98 years old, Agana, Guam

Let’s hope that the Commission on Elections, Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Labor and Employment, all private sector entities that cater to the OFW market, and members of media can unite behind a more strident campaign to encourage our OFWs to avail of the OAV registration process before October ends. In partnership with Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis of the Office of Special Concerns and Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez, this writer has volunteered to help out in this badly needed information drive. If you also want to help, please call up the Blas F. Ople Policy Center at 3391768 to 69 and look for Ricci del Rosario.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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