Voting in Doha, Qatar

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.3, No.1
by Maria Christina Pascual-Serafica, NAMFREL Deputized Representative for Qatar 
(Editor's note: These are excerpts from the observation reports of Ms. Pascual. The voting in Doha took place from April 13 to May 13, 2013 at the Philippine Embassy in Doha. There were 23,260 registered voters in Qatar, or 11% of the estimated 200,000 Filipinos in the country. Six special boards of election inspectors (SBEIs) were formed to accommodate the voters. The turnout was very low, at only 10%).

Voter turnout was low but this was to be expected according to Vice-Consul Melvin C. Almonguera. They were expecting a better turnout on the 2nd weekend of the voting period. Vice-Consul Almonguera also added that he knew that voters may find it a bit difficult to go the embassy since there is no public transportation available in that area. A voter may have to spend an average of QR50 (or around PhP550) for a 10-km roundtrip fare to go the embassy. Almonguera said that he would be very happy if 10,000 voters would cast their votes by May 13.

In order to encourage a higher voter turnout among Filipinos whose residence/place of work are based outside of Doha, the embassy was arranging for the deployment of an SBEI team to oversee the field voting at Al Khor (located 50 km north of Doha).

Field voting was conducted on April 26 at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary located 26 km away from the Philippine Embassy. One of the embassy staff noted that there was a good turnout of voters since the number of ballots cast was in the double-digits.

In random conversations with the Vice-Consul regarding the lack of interest among Filipinos to cast their votes, the following are some of the reasons which may have had an impact on the voter turnout:
- Voters are not that excited to vote for senators and party-list representatives. Filipinos are more inclined to vote during Presidential Elections.
- Filipina domestic helpers are usually not allowed by their employers to leave the house even on weekends. If they have to go on errands to remit money to their families, go to the embassy to renew a passport or secure an overseas employment certificate, the employer usually goes with them. It’s also possible that the employer might ignore their request to cast their vote at the embassy simply because they don’t think that it’s necessary or it’s just a waste of time.
- It’s not that easy to take a day off during weekdays to go the embassy especially among those working outside of Doha.
- It’s too costly to go to the embassy if you’re earning an average of QR3,000 per month (QR100/daily wage). Roundtrip fare for a private taxi would set you back between QR30 to QR100 depending on your location.
- Workers who are based in Ras Laffan, Al Khor, and Mesaieed (where the oil refineries are located) are usually ferried to the city every Friday so that they can do their shopping or just to laze around the city. However, the company buses have a very strict time schedule and if you miss it, you have to shell out money for the cab fare or hitch a ride back to your place of work which may be 50 to 100 km away from the capital. Given a choice of doing your chores or going to the embassy, people may opt to just skip voting altogether. An ideal solution to this problem would be to offer free shuttle services from the Central Bus Station (where most workers are dropped
off) to the embassy. However, it would also be difficult for the embassy and for Filipino organizations to do this since the local police might misconstrue such service as an “illegal taxicab operation.” There is a crackdown on private vehicles being used to ferry passengers and volunteers might face hefty fines or their driver’s license might be revoked if caught by the local police.

(On April 27, Saturday) one voter became upset when he was told that he could only cast his vote but he could not collect his passport since all consular services are done during weekdays. He said that his employer would not allow him to take a day-off during weekdays as they are undermanned and he hoped that he could collect his passport and cast his vote at the same time. He pointed out that it was too costly for him to make two trips to the embassy. Recommendation: In a place like Doha, where most employees have embassy staff could give consideration to voters who would like to cast their votes and collect their passports at the same time. It would be especially helpful to voters who have to make a 50-100 km trip to the embassy. The embassy staff can do this on a case-to-case basis.

Information dissemination on the overseas absentee voting was mainly done through the Filipino organizations in Qatar. Meanwhile, voters relied on ABS-CBN’s The Filipino Channel (TFC) for information on candidates. In my interviews with some of the voters, most of them claimed that their primary sources of information about the elections and candidates were TFC and Facebook posts of friends and relatives. Many were not familiar with the candidates especially those running for party-list representatives. A few voters were dismayed that the certified list of party-list candidates was several pages long and they only had to choose one candidate from the list. At least one voter admitted that he only chose from the first page of the candidates’ list since he did not realize that the other pages also contained the names of the other party-list organizations.

A few voters asked the SBEIs which positions will be voted for. They were surprised to find out that they will only vote for 12 senators and 1 party-list representative. Some remarked “ay, walang local positions?"

.. One of the difficulties faced by the embassy personnel was the shortage of election paraphernalia supplied by Comelec. For example, the seals provided for the ballot boxes were insufficient. What the SBEI did was to use the original Comelec seal on the lid where the valid ballots were placed while a photocopy of the seal was just pasted on the lid where the spoiled ballots and ballot coupons were placed. The number of Certified List of Overseas
Voters was also insufficient according to Vice Consul Almonguera. The embassy staff just downloaded the list of voters for Qatar as posted in the Comelec website.

Some voters were turned away since their names were not on the Certified List of Overseas Absentee Voters (CLOAV). There were cases where the voter registered at the POEA prior to his deployment to Qatar but his name was not included in the CLOAV.
Others mistakenly thought that they could cast their votes since they were already registered voters in the Philippines. It seems that they were not aware that they had to apply as an overseas absentee voter and that they had to request Comelec to transfer their voting records to Qatar.

Unlike in 2010 when the ballot boxes were transported to the Philippine School in Doha for the canvassing of votes, this time the canvassing took place at the embassy’s premises. The embassy just moved to a new and larger villa and there was sufficient space to count all the ballots for the 6 SBEIs. On the first day of voting, five supporters of senatorial candidate Bro. Eddie Villanueva arrived at the embassy wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “Bro. Eddie Villanueva for Senator.” Vice-Consul Almonguera immediately requested the group to remove/change their shirts before entering the polling station.

Two volunteers of the Kalinga Party-List were seen distributing campaign flyers to voters a few meters away from the embassy premises. I informed one of the embassy staff about the Kalinga Party List and I was surprised by his response. He said that they couldn't do anything about it since the volunteers were outside the embassy premises and technically speaking, they have no jurisdiction beyond the embassy’s gates since that is already part of the State of Qatar.

(I personally observed on May 13) a volunteer from Kalinga Party List distributing flyers outside the embassy. He asked me whether I was going to vote, and handed me one of the flyers. I informed him that I was actually from Namfrel and I would note down his presence in my report. When I tried to take his photo, he hid behind the cabin of the embassy’s security detail. A few minutes later, the Kalinga Party List volunteer finally left.