Abraham Lincoln once said that “the ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Yet, in today’s unfortunate reality, the Philippine population fears that the power of each ballot no longer belongs to those who cast it. Every election season, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is entrusted with their votes, where some ballots simply go down the drain.
But in every treacherous tale of trickery, there is a brave soul that tells the truth. For this reason, Filipinos laud the people who took a stand against electoral fraud and walked out of the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) on February 9, 1986—widely known as the “Comelec 35” or the “Marvelous 35”. And despite their great contribution, history has not told their story right.
A business affair
Despite the name, none of the Comelec 35 were actual Comelec employees. “We were permanent staff of the National Computer Center (NCC),” clarifies Linda Angeles-Hill, one of the leaders of the group of staff. While other retellings of their story may suggest otherwise, politics was the least of their concerns. “I don’t even know who voted for [whom] among us,” Angeles-Hill admits.
Their team was tasked to create an entire computerized election system from scratch, and with the limited technology available at the time, their work left no room for political discussions. Mina Bergara, one of the tabulators, shares, “People were sleeping, staying in the office [for] 24 hours to finish doing all of the programs.” And in spite of the difficulty of the job, she guarantees that there was only one condition set by the team from the NCC: “we’re going to do it for as long as it’s an honest one.”
As much as they were there for professional reasons, these same ones are why they left. Angeles-Hill recalls, “Between [the eighth and ninth of] February, on at least two occasions, the figures released by Comelec to the public as official counts did not tally [correctly] with our computer reports.” When the NCC personnel witnessed the data manipulation, they chose to take a stand. In response to the blatant disrespect for their honest work, Bergara explains that they, at the time, decided they “just don’t want to be part of this.”
Equipment out of their hands and agitation in their hearts, the 35 walked out of the PICC building, as they were surprised by the people who awaited them outside. “A crowd swarmed us shouting, ‘You are heroes’ and ‘We will protect you’,” Angeles-Hill narrates. Unknown to the cheering crowd, the walkouters were filled with dread, as they rushed into vehicles and whisked away to Baclaran Church out of fear for their safety.
As the windows of Baclaran Church’s sacristy were boarded up to protect the Comelec 35 from possible snipers, “Half of the group, ayaw umuwi [because] suddenly narerealize [nila] what’s happening,” Bergara mentions. Anxiety ran rampant as the group gave a statement to the press, clarifying that the purpose of their actions was not inspired by politics.
(…they didn’t want to go home…)
Still, plagued with fatigue, the 35 employees decided that half of them would stay with Angeles-Hill and her husband, Lt. Col. Red Kapunan, in Camp Aguinaldo, while others would go home with Bergara. The latter divulges, “[We went with] the idea na in the morning, kanya-kanyang uwi na lang, you know? That was [around] 2 am.”
(…everyone would go home, you know?)
Unbeknown to them, things would take a turn for the worse. The headlines of February 10, 1986 called their walkout a blatant sabotage against the Marcoses. Angeles-Hill laments, “This was furthest from the truth but it scared us. They threatened to investigate and [to] charge us in court as saboteurs.” The following nine days found the 35 hiding at the Cenacle Retreat House in Katipunan, without contact with their friends and family. During this difficult time, Bergara remembers that she had just come back from a maternity leave and had a two-month-old child at home. “I remember thinking, baka hindi ko na makikita anak ko,” she reveals.
(Maybe I won’t be able to see my child anymore.)
During their time in seclusion, the 35 were taught safety measures in case of any situation once they left the Cenacle, including how to check if they were being followed and had tracking numbers placed on their shoes. Although they remained fearful of the lack of communication with anyone outside the group, Angeles-Hill expresses, “Those who gave us support made me feel safe…We also received many messages of moral support from family, friends, workmates, and people we didn’t even know.” The help they received from those around them kept the group whole during that turbulent time.
“Siguro, being together kept our mental state good. Kasi we can talk about it,” Bergara voices out. Amid the myriad of emotions and uncertainties, the 35 formed an unshakable bond that pulled them through. Angeles-Hill adds that they had no choice but to go one day at a time, relying on each other. She attests, “I didn’t personally know some of the others before the walkout, but [in] hindsight, I really can’t imagine going through this ordeal with a better group. We have kept our friendship for 36 years.”
Truth be told
More than three decades after the walkout, the Comelec 35’s truth remains warped. For the longest time, their narratives were linked to dissenting late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s administration, when they all emphasized that the walkout served as disapproval of Comelec’s fraudulent system. Angeles-Hill and Bergara make one point clear: that the protest was a professional objection rather than a partisan political statement. “We walked out because we saw an anomaly that our personal value system could not accept,” Angeles-Hill points out.
While they both point out that the act was not politically driven, they still acknowledge that the walkout was a way to stand up for what is right. After hearing that news had spread regarding their seemingly normal deed, they realized that the action impacted others more than they could have imagined. “By telling our truth, maybe people can learn, people will be inspired—na hindi naman kailangan ang act ay great or big to do something good for your country,” Bergara attests.
(An act does not need to be great or big…)
Ultimately, they encourage others to value integrity as change starts from there. Even when they believed that the walkout was a simple act of professionalism, they only understood how crucial it was to be veracious. “If you want change to happen, it has to start with you,” Bergara imparts. Their narratives have been alive for more than 36 years, thus proving that it truly was a stirring act of bravery. “I just wish people, especially young people, will take our story as a reminder that ordinary people can have great impact if truth and conscience lead the way,” Angeles-Hill ends.