(This post should have been up on our blog last night, but was delayed because of technical problems we experienced late afternoon yesterday.)
PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s apology raises more questions than it answers. Tonight, after three weeks of silence, she admitted calling a Comelec official before and during the canvassing of the results of last year’s elections. She apologized for this “lapse in judgment” and insisted that her actions were meant “not to influence the outcome of the election” but merely to protect her vote.
Mrs. Arroyo admitted to an impropriety, and asked Filipinos that she be allowed “to close this chapter and move on with the business of governing.”
This statement is a gamble. For sure, the President did not admit to conspiring to rig the vote. But her carefully worded apology in effect confirmed that the conversation or conversations with an unnamed Comelec official, presumably Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, took place.
Tonight’s announcement also confirmed, if only indirectly, the authenticity of the “Garci” tapes (or at least portions of these), which have been at the center of the controversy roiling her administration. Such a confirmation has serious repercussions, if not for the President herself, then for a whole slew of other individuals, most of all Garcillano himself, who is recorded as being involved in various transactions aimed at rigging the count.
The conversations, after all, provide damning proof that Garcillano was, in the words of a Comelec official, “the plotter for electoral fraud, the overall supervisor and commander in chief” of the manipulation of the count in favor of the administration. The recording points to systemic and institutional fraud perpetrated by the Comelec. Does this mean that the President, by confirming her phone calls to the commissioner, also provided, albeit indirectly, a virtual confirmation of the fraud?
The President also in effect implicated former Senator Robert Barbers, who was caught on the tape arranging a payoff of P1.5 million to P2 million to Garcillano. About a dozen other Comelec officials and bureaucrats, whose conversations with the commissioner alluded, however indirectly, to manipulating the vote, should also be held to account, even if the President were found to be innocent.
But is she really? Were her calls to the commissioner really as harmless as she claims?
The President, according to the three-hour recording of Garcillano’s conversations from May 26 to June 10, 2004, made 15 phone calls to the Comelec commissioner. On one day alone, May 29, she made three phone calls. Were so many calls needed to “protect” her vote? Wouldn’t a blanket statement to the commissioner that he should ensure that no cheating is done have sufficed? And why didn’t she call the Comelec chairman, instead of a functionary lower down the totem pole? Did she have to personally ask Garcillano about the count in specific towns and about specific incidents regarding the opposition’s accusation of fraud in Mindanao?
Perhaps the most damning conversation between Garcillano and the President was the one that took place at 10:29 p.m. on June 2, 2004. During that call, Mrs. Arroyo expressed concern that the statement of votes (SOVs) that support the provincial/municipal certificates of canvass (COCs) in Basilan and Lanao del Sur did not match.
In that call, Garcillano said that the mismatch was possible but that the president should not worry because “itong ginawang pagpataas sa inyo…maayos naman ang paggawa, eh (the way in which your votes were increased was done well).” This was in effect an admission that there was, as the opposition had alleged then, a manipulation of the votes in those two provinces. Confirming that this conversation took place is a virtual admission that the cheating in those places also happened.
In the same conversation, Garcillano alluded to a rigging of the canvass in Basilan and Sulu. He told the President: “Sa Basilan, alam nyo naman ang military doon eh hindi masyadong marunong kasi silang gumawa eh. Katulad don sa Sulu, si Gen. Habacon. Pero hindi naman ho, kinausap ko na yung chairman ng board (of canvassers) sa Sulu. Ang akin pataguin ko muna ang EO (election officer) ng Pangutaran para hindi siya makatestigo ho. (In Basilan, the military wasn’t so good at doing these things, like in Sulu, with Gen. Habacon. But I already talked to the chairman of the board of canvassers in Sulu. I think we should just ask the election officer of Pangutaran to hide first so he doesn’t have to testify).”
This conversation implicates Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon, commanding general of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, whose area of operation covers Basilan, Sulu and the Zamboanga peninsula. Garcillano implied that Habacon was party to the fraud.
The election officer of Pangutaran town in Sulu was Cipriano Ebron. It was in Pangutaran that the opposition alleged massive dagdag bawas operations took place, with Mrs. Arroyo’s vote being padded by 8,000 and Poe’s being shaved by 2,000. Such an operation would not have been possible without Ebron’s cooperation. Apparently, the President was worried that Ebron would talk. This was why Garcillano assured her that Ebron would be asked to hide in the meantime so that the opposition would not be able to force him to testify on the anomalies. If the President says this conversation took place, then was she also not party, if not to fraud, at the very least to obstruction of justice?
In fact, more details surface in another conversation, this time with a certain “Ruben” to whom Garcillano recounted that the military had already told Ebron to make himself scarce. In yet another call, the commissioner described Ebron as his man (“tao ko yan”) and even boasted that “kahit pakainin mo ng bala yun, di na magpapakita (even if they made him eat bullets, he wouldn’t show up).”
But that is not all. Other conversations in the three-hour recording leave a trail of doubt about the intent of the President’s conversations. At face value, the most frequently replayed question she asked of Garcillano, in a call at 9:43 a.m. on May 29, 2004, “So will I still lead by more than 1 M (million)?” may seem innocent enough.
But Garcillano’s reply, “Pipilitin ho natin ‘yan,” would seem to indicate that the commissioner was in a position to ensure such a lead. How can a Comelec official do that, except by manipulating the count?
In fact, Garcillano told the President during the same phone call that while Poe was leading in some places in Mindanao, votes from seven municipalities in Lanao would make up for the shortfall. The reality on the ground was this: Poe was ahead in Lanao del Sur 42,374 to 32,389, at least according to the preliminary Namfrel count. But upon the Comelec’s orders, special elections were called in seven towns where a failure of elections had been declared. Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Arroyo got an overwhelming majority of the vote in those towns: 30,447, against Poe’s 6,805.
But the Namfrel chapter in the province, after comparing the certificates of canvass and the precinct-level election returns, found that the President’s tally in seven Lanao del Sur towns was padded by 21,217 votes, while Poe’s were shaved by 9,174. In another town, Poona Bayabao, the certificate of canvass showed Arroyo getting 4,700 votes, while Poe got zero, and this was what was reflected in the final count. The Namfrel chapter, however, showed precinct-level election returns that listed Arroyo getting 964 votes against Poe’s 767.
In the end, the congressional canvass showed her final count in Lanao del Sur at 128,301 versus 43,302 for Poe. Given this context, Garcillano’s assurance to the President that she could get her one million “if we can get more in Lanao” does not seem as innocuous as Mrs. Arroyo would like us to believe.
In fact, the overall sense of Garcillano’s conversations was that the fraud was extensive and systemic, as it involved not just the Comelec but also the military and the police. Mrs. Arroyo’s admission and apology tonight therefore open a can of worms. If Garcillano said all of those things, then he was guilty of fraud. But he was surely, certainly, not alone. He had a whole infrastructure of fraud behind him, and as Mrs. Arroyo herself confirmed tonight, also the implicit support of the President for what he was doing.