Filipino seafarers in Portugal get to vote for first time in years through OAV

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MANILA, Philippines — One seafarer had not voted in nearly 18 years. Another thought the Binay on the ballot was Vice President Jejomar Binay suddenly seeking a Senate seat. Still, another has been out of the show biz loop and thought reelectionist Juan Miguel Zubiri was still dating singer-actress Vina Morales.

But they were only too happy to vote, finally able to exercise their right to choose their leaders even while thousands of miles away from home, perhaps for too long.

If only to reach a sector mostly excluded in the polls, the Philippine Embassy in Portugal has devised a way to reach the Filipino seafarers and let them vote.

“We call it “akyat-barko,” Philippine Ambassador to Portugal Philippe Lhuiller told reporters of the unique system he designed.

“It was just one of the crazy ideas I had. Because why would they come to the Embassy to vote? They have no time. Their ship arrives at 7 a.m., they leave at 6 p.m. And of course they want to go out there [to see the city],” said Lhuiller in an interview in Manila.

Under the scheme proposed by the envoy and approved by the Commission on Elections, Lhuiller himself and two other staff personally boarded ships at the Lisbon port to look for Filipinos who would like to register in the Overseas Absentee Voting system.

The Embassy team then went back to port this week to see if returning ships, by any chance, carried the same Filipinos who had signed up for the OAV.

Of the 6,500 seafarers that Lhuiller’s team were able to enlist, up to 500 have so far voted out of 12 vessels that have berthed in Lisbon since Monday, said Lhuiller.

“They were only so happy to vote,” said a visibly delighted Lhuiller, who just started at his new post in January.

The figure is much higher than the registered land-based Filipinos in Portugal, with the total OAV registrants just at 323 out of nearly 3,000 known Philippine citizens in the European country.

There are a total 988,384 Filipinos overseas registered for the OAV. As of Thursday, voter turnout among Filipinos overseas was at 26,463, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

Lhuiller said his team would continue to visit at least three ships at the Portuguese capital every day to let OAV-registered Filipinos to cast their votes. The OAV will end on May 13 in Philippine missions around the world.

Under the current scheme, Filipinos abroad may vote in the Philippine missions of their current locations. The system may, however, be difficult for seafarers frequently changing ports.

Lhuiller expressed hope that more Filipino seafarers would be able to cast their votes while overseas, ideally through allowing those registered to vote in the Philippines to participate in the OAV in their next port call.

Formerly the country’s envoy to Rome for 11 years, Lhuiller, also among the country’s leading businessmen, said he hoped to “reintroduce” the Philippines to Portugal and vice versa, saying there has been very little awareness about the European country at home.

Currently, there is “very minimal” trade to speak off between the Philippines and Portugal, according to Lhuiller. Manila just reopened a mission there in 2010 while Lisbon has no consular presence in the Philippines.

“The biggest problem is we don’t know about Portugal except for Fatima,” said Lhuiller of the famous Portuguese pilgrimage site known for Marian apparitions.

“We have to start from scratch, reintroduce the Philippines, let them know about us,” he added.

Among areas of cooperation the new envoy is looking at include Philippine exportation of furniture, home décor, houseware, costume jewellery, processed food, health products and electronics, among others.

Lhuiller has so far met with ambassadors of different countries in Lisbon and hopes to meet with mayors of Portuguese cities as he explores opportunities for linkages.

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