An attempt to automate voting in next year's Philippine elections has been thrown into disarray after a contractor abruptly pulled out of the project, an official said on Tuesday.
"We will have to go back to manual (voting)," said Jose Melo, chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
He said it was too late to invite new tenders ahead of next year's May 10 election, when 50 million voters will choose President Gloria Arroyo's successor as well as hundreds of candidates for legislative and local executive posts.
Melo said Comelec planned to sue a Philippine company, Total Information Management, for withdrawing from a 7.2-billion-peso (150-million-dollar) contract it had won with a foreign partner.
Without elaborating, Melo said the company had blamed "irreconcilable differences" with its foreign partner for the decision.
The foreign partner, a Barbados-based company called Smartmatic, said it was surprised by the move, and called on the company to fulfill its obligation.
The consortium was to provide 82,000 computerised counting machines across the southeast Asian archipelago and speed up voting to two days instead of several weeks under the former, manual system.
One election monitor warned that the project's collapse would lead to "a nightmare of fraudulent elections," and a return to the allegations of vote-rigging that dogged Arroyo's presidential term.
"The system to computerise the voting was designed to minimise cheating and fraud, including vote-buying and -selling," said Henrietta de Villa, head of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, a watchdog backed by the Catholic church.
"We now can't discount that possibility," De Villa told AFP.