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By Bernice Camille V. Bauzon, Reporter

Smartmatic claims to have as much at stake in the success of the poll automation project in the Philippines as Filipinos, its chief told The Manila Times in an chief roundtable on Thursday.

The project in the Philippines would be a showcase in Asia for Smartmatic, a firm with an annual revenue of $250 million and 300 employees worldwide, not counting the 41,000 or so to be hired for next year's elections'said Cesar Flores, newly installed regional president for Asia. Smartmatic, founded in Venezuela and now based in Barbados, plans to make the Philippines its launching pad for the region.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) awarded to Smartmatic, along with its Filipino joint-venture partner Total Information Management (TIM), the multibillion-peso project to automate the 2010 national elections.

The Venezuelan Flores said that the poll automation was a 'strategic' project for Smartmatic, which is eyeing projects elsewhere in Asia, including Indonesia and India.

He added that for now, the poll automation was merely a 'breakeven project' for the company.

Flores explained that Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines to be used in the 2010 elections were to be on a lease-purchase agreement with Comelec for P7.2 billion.

Most of the other bids from other firms quoted figures of about P10 billion.

'We will only make money out of it if they [Comelec] decide to purchase them [machines] after the elections,' he added. 'But if not, we will bring the machines to other countries and make money from them.'

Comelec has the option to purchase the Smartmatic-TIM machines for a price not higher than 50 percent of the lease price'that is, if next year's elections are successful.

Flores said they estimate that their optical scanners should be useful for at least 10 years, or about three national elections in the Philippines. Reusing the machines would also help bring down the cost of future elections, he added.

Must-win bidding

Flores told The Times that they intentionally submitted a lower than expected bid to Comelec because they felt that it was imperative to Smartmatic's Asian expansion to win the project.

Smartmatic executives felt that 'we have to get this project,' he said, adding that they see the Philippines as their gateway to other Asian markets.

Flores said that in India alone, they are targeting to produce about a million optical-scan machines for a month-long election in one of the most populous countries in the world.

Flores said that their company has already shelled out and committed some $70 million for the supplies that would be used to make the 82,200 optical-scan machines for the Philippine polls.

'Right now, we have only been paid 10 percent of the lease price,' he said, adding that the recent squabble in the Supreme Court regarding the petition filed by lawyer Harry Roque against the automation project has caused payment delays on the part of Comelec and on the work schedule for Smartmatic-TIM.

Flores said, however, that the hiccups were manageable, adding that Comelec has made payments recently, and that their works schedules have been tightened. He added, for example, they have decided to give up their Christmas holiday to ensure the project implementation remains on schedule.

Mammoth task

Smartmatic is making about 82,200 optical-scan machines for the Philippine polls'and that equipment is customized with numerous security measures to ensure clean and orderly elections, Flores told The Times.

The joint venture will hire some 42,000 technicians who will be deployed at the about 80,000 cluster precincts across the Philippines. Those people will provide technical support'just in case.
Smartmatic-TIM will also set up a 600-seat call center in Manila, also to provide technical support when votes are caste and counted.

Flores conceded that technical problems were unavoidable in any election'especially one that was national in scope.

But he added that he was confident about their technology'harping particularly about the fact their machines offer a paper trail and that the results can be audited.

The law mandates Smartmatic-TIM to produce 30 copies of election returns'eight initially before the results are transmitted, 22 afterward.

An election return is a manual copy of the voting results that will enable Comelec to option to revert to manual counting if there is a protest.

Renato Garcia, a University of the Philippines professor and Comelec technical consultant, explained that printing the election returns in two batches would allow watchers to compare the results 'before and after' transmission'yet another security feature.

Garcia also attended the roundtable at The Times, along with Flores and Gene Gregorio, Smartmatic spokesman and PR manager.

Flores said, 'We only provide technologies that are auditable. We won't go into elections with machines that cannot be recounted.'

He added, 'Our system is designed in such a way that when something goes wrong, it can be detected.'