THE GHOSTS of the last elections haunt Lanao del Sur and they refuse to rest. They will not go away. They flit about, seeking resolution. So when Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, the commander of the Marine brigade stationed in the province during the last election, testified in the Senate in September, saying that he had been mysteriously relieved from his post two clays after the voting, the ghosts were roused again. Days after the Senate hearing, Gudani and one of his officers, Marine Lt. Col. Alexander Balutan, were sent to court martial for refusing to heed their superiors’ orders not to testily. The ghosts, having been roused, are now rattling even more noisily than ever before.
What really happened in Lanao del Sur in May 2004? What did the military do there that necessitated the relief of u stubborn general and later, his frantic superiors’ efforts to ensure he would not break the silence? What other dirty secrets lie buried in Lanao? The answer to these questions is whispered about on the streets of Marawi and elsewhere in the province. There was massive cheating in the presidential count, residents and officials there say, and it involved several groups of operators, some from Manila, others homegrown. It happened, they say, with the complicity of the military, the Commission on Elections (Comelec), and even Malacañang.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo insists that she won fair and square. Despite doubts that had been raised about the conduct of the polls, she says that survey results and international election monitors attest to her victory. She dismisses the accusations of fraud and says her enemies are resurrecting the election charges because they want to unseat her.
In 2004, Arroyo scored one of her bigger election triumphs in Lanao del Sur. There, according to the official Comelec count, she clobbered her closest rival, actor Fernando Poe Jr. The score: 158,748 vs. 50,107, or a ratio of three votes to one. While Arroyo did even better in her home province of Pampanga, and also in Cebu, where she was an early favorite, the Lanao del Sur upset was astonishing because Poe was wildly popular there, if only because nearly every Maranao had seen “Magnum .357,” the movie where the actor, expertly wielding a revolver, played the role of a fearless Moro policeman.
Questions about the Lanao results were raised even during the congressional canvass that preceded the president’s proclamation. Even then, the opposition had pointed out some eye-popping anomalies. In the town of Poona Bayabao, for example, Arroyo got all 4,700 votes; all the other presidential candidates scored zero. Yet precinct-level election returns obtained by both the opposition and the local chapter of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) showed substantial votes for Poe. In October, “The Probe Team” visited the town and nearly everyone they talked to there swore they had voted for FPJ.
Indeed, for the entire province, both the opposition and Namfrel count based on precinct returns showed Poe overtaking Arroyo by a mile. Yet by the time the Comelec finished the provincial canvass, the ratios were reversed in the president’s favor.
The opposition cried foul but its protests were drowned out by the majority during the congressional canvass. The local Namfrel chapter held press conferences, saying that its own incomplete count showed Arroyo’s votes padded in the final Comelec results by 21,217 votes, while Poe’s were shaved by 9,174. But this, too, went unheeded.
After all, everyone is blasé about cheating in Lanao. The province’s reputation precedes it. In 1949, by all accounts a fraudulent election, it was said that “the birds and the bees” voting in Lanao enabled Elpidio Quirino to bag the presidency. During the Marcos era, the joke was that after every voting, Ali Dimaporo, the Maranao strongman who was a staunch ally of the dictator, would call up Malacañang and ask his patron, “Apo, how many more votes do you need?” Decades later, not much seemed to have changed, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. And so the issue was more or less laid to rest, or so most people thought.
And then the “Hello, Garci?” tapes surfaced. Containing the wiretapped conversations between President Arroyo and former Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano in May and June 2004. the recording stirred things up once more. Among other things, it showed that three of the 14 phone calls Arroyo made to the commissioner concerned the Lanao count. In one of those phone calls, Garcillano even assured the president that in Lanao as well as Basilan “itong ginawa nilang pagpataas sa inyo, maayos naman ang paggawa (they did a fine job of increasing your votes).” This caused the resurrection of the ghosts. They had not been laid to rest, after all.
A landscape of ghosts
Lanao’s is a landscape of rugged hills, lakes, and swamps. It is crisscrossed by the mighty Agus and Cotabato Rivers and their tributaries. More than half of the province is still forested land and many of its inhabitants are poor, living on subsistence fishing and fanning. Many towns still don’t have electricity or have it only an hour or so a day. Piped water is a luxury, so it is in muddy wells and pools that villagers drink, bathe, and do their laundry. Lanao del Sur is very much datu country — it is a smattering of little fiefdoms ailed by big men. Warring clans hold sway there, exacting loyalty and obedience from their members. This is a country of ghosts, a land of dark secrets and unsettled scores.
Everyone says there is no such thing as an honest election in Lanao. Local bosses, usually armed, buy and bully their way to public office. If this does not suffice, they kill and cheat. Ordinary voters are too poor or too weak, or live in villages too far from the counting, to resist the intimidation and the fraud. Inevitably, Lanao elections are marred by violent incidents involving the killing of candidates and their supporters and the switching of ballot boxes. During the 2001 election count, the provincial capitol, where the canvassing was being held, was hit by mortar fire.
The common belief in Lanao is that the Comelec officials in the province, the teachers who man the polls, even the watchers of rival candidates can be bought; if not, they can be kidnapped or threatened. This is why the operatives of desperate senatorial candidates go to Lanao (as well as other places in Mindanao) to “buy” votes even days and weeks after election day. A network of dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and shaving) operators has existed there for some time, and they are available for a price. Some of them approach the candidates and offer to rig the count for a fee; sometimes savvy political operators working for Manila-based politicians and parties seek them out, with an “order” for manufactured votes. The operators are masters of their craft: they either fabricate election returns or certificates of canvass or else tamper with the genuine ones. They also pay off election officials and teachers to ensure their complicity in the fraud.
While the results of the local elections are closely monitored by rival candidates and their supporters, making it more difficult, although by no means impossible, to mess around with the count, few people in Lanao care about the national count. There are few watchers left when the national count is done. While there is a local Namfrel chapter, it cannot cover the length and breadth of Lanao. Besides, being volunteers and being unarmed in a province where might is right, they can be intimidated as well.
Just about the only ones who had the means to police the elections effectively in Lanao del Sur were the Marines. The 1st Marine Brigade was stationed in Camp Keithley, the military camp on a hill in Marawi. the province’s lakeshore capital. The Marines were new to Lanao del Sur, having been assigned there only in 2003. By the time of the elections, they had been stationed there only about a year and so had not been dirtied by the politics of the place. They look their role seriously, even holding dialogues and “peace covenants” among rival political groups.
“This is the first time a Marine brigade is being assigned in the Lanao del Sur area.” Brig. Gen. Gudani said in his Senate testimony on September 28, “and that’s why my instruction to everybody was clean we need to hold a clean, honest, peaceful election.”
“We were victims of circumstances,” was all Lt. Col. Balutan, commander of the 7th Marine battalion assigned to secure 17 municipalities of Lanao del Sur, would say when he testified at the Senate also on September 28, “I stood my ground against forces or pressures from any political entity… I promised the people of Lanao a peaceful and credible election…! told them the armed forces and the Marines will protect your vote and we will have a clean and credible election.”
Frustrating the marines
To some extent, the Marines succeeded. The voting was relatively uneventful by Lanao standards, although there were a few shootouts and attempts to switch ballot boxes. A failure of elections was declared in several towns, but not quite as many as in the past. On the request of the candidates, who feared violence if the counting were held in many different places, the canvass in all but two of Lanao del Sur’s 39 towns was held in scenic Marawi, on the northern shore of Lake Lanao. The actual voting on May 10 and the first few days of the canvass were tightly secured by the Marines, and it was partly for this reason that the municipal counts, while not completely blameless, went relatively well, even resulting in the defeat of a handful of well-entrenched local dynasties.
The Marines, however, could not prevent what now appears lo have been a large-scale manipulation of the presidential count. Judging from the parallel counts based on election returns obtained by Namfrel and the opposition, the presidential votes seem to have been tampered with big lime, not at the precinct level but at the municipal and provincial canvass.
Unknown to both Namfrel and the opposition, or for that matter, the Marines, several groups taking orders from the administration had been assigned to “operate” in Lanao and other Mindanao provinces. According to interviews with individuals who were part of the postelection operations in Mindanao, these groups were moving independently of each other and were apparently not aware of each other’s movements. But their instructions were the same: ensure the president wins by a million votes.
One of the groups was led by Virgilio Garcillano, the commissioner who was ostensibly assigned to Southern Tagalog. His role was to get the cooperation of Comelec field personnel in the tampering of the count in Lanao and other places in Mindanao, apparently with the knowledge of the president herself, at least as indicated by the conversations in the “Hello. Garci” tapes.
Another group involved Nagamura Moner, a Maranao politician and currently a shari’ah court judge who is widely seen in Lanao as a political operator in the employ of First Gentleman Jose Miguel ‘Mike’ Arroyo. Two of Moner’s followers — Abdul Wahab Batugan and Lomala Macadaub — told “The Probe Team” that during the canvassing, they were sent by Moner to different provinces in Muslim Mindanao where they distributed cash to Comelec personnel “para baliktarin ang COCs (to reverse what’s in the certificates of canvass).”
The third group involved the military, but it is unclear how far up the chain of command the conspiracy went. Based on testimonies so far given at the Senate and the AFP Fact-Finding Board, senior military officers in Mindanao were involved in ensuring that the operators could do their work and in at least one instance, instructed soldiers to take pan in the cheating.
A few days before the elections, there were already signs that things were going awry. On May 6, four days before election day, Garcillano. who was also the commissioner in charge of personnel, removed Helen Flores, the Comelec regional director for Muslim Mindanao, from her post and transferred her to Western Mindanao. The timing of the reshuffle just days before the polling was highly unusual. Even more suspicious, Flores was replaced by her deputy, Renato Magbutay, who was known to be Garcillano’s protege. Comelec sources in Manila and Mindanao say that Flores, while also close to commissioner, had a reputation for being hard-headed; “hindi nila mapasunod (they couldn’t make her follow their orders).”
Gudani, in his Senate testimony, said that he was surprised to find that just a few days before May 10, Ray Sumalipao. the provincial elections officer for Lanao del Sur, was changing the assignment of election inspectors and the clustering centers of the voting precincts. Sumalipao, the general said, was taking orders from Garcillano. The two elections officials were known to be particularly close. Sumalipao was in fact the election supervisor for Lanao del Norte but was moved to Lanao del Sur in February 2004, shortly after Garcillano’s appointment as commissioner.
Sumalipao denies taking instructions from Garcillano during the elections. He also says that contrary to Gudani’s testimony, he didn’t move election personnel prior to the voting. “The clustering was approved by the commission way before the elections,” he says. “It was Gudani who wanted to change the clustering, but the Comelec approved the recommendation of the election officers. He’s lying.”
A lawyer employed by the Comelec since 1961 and assigned to Mindanao for most of his 40 years at the commission, the amiable Garcillano was a familiar figure among the Comelec field personnel on the island. In fact, all the Comelec employees there called him “Tatay,” or “Dad.” Having risen up the ranks and cultivated friendships with election bureaucrats, he was known for being approachable and also for taking care of his people.
Garcillano was particularly familiar with Lanao del Sur, having served as the provincial election supervisor there from 1970 to 1971 and having been assigned to supervise either the registration or the election there several times in the 1990s. So close were the Lanao Comelec officials to Garcillano that in February 2004, they all signed a manifesto supporting his appointment as commissioner.
Garcillano was in Manila during the election and the counting. Hut he sent his trusted nephew, Michaelangelo Zuce, to monitor the operations for him. Zuce, who was then employed in the office of Jose Ma. Rufino, the presidential adviser on political affairs, has since testified in the Senate and implicated his uncle in a conspiracy to rig the polls that included payoffs made to compliant Comelec officials and personnel.
In an interview with “The Probe Team” in October, Zuce revealed that he was in Mindanao even before election day, keeping an eye on what was happening there. Lanao del Sur, he said, became a cause of concern. “I was talking frequently to the provincial election supervisor there,” he said in Tagalog. “He told me they could not move because the security was strict. The Marines were very strict.”
Zuce said that he reported the matter to his uncle. Garcillano apparently complained about the strict Marines to military authorities, having received reports not just from Zuce but other informants. The leaked tape containing the commissioner’s wiretapped conversations reveals that in a phone conversation with the president in the evening of May 28, 2004, Garcillano said he had to ask Brig. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., then deputy chief of staff for operations, and then Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Roy Kyamko to get Gudani out of Lanao.