Pick your poison

Sun, 07/03/2005 - 00:00
page 1
Choose and die
There are only two people stopping President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from being immediately turfed out of office: Joseph Estrada and Noli de Castro. As long as a crooked, lazy ex-president, and a stupid, lazy vice-president are the only conceivable legal alternatives, many Filipinos will apparently stick to the ineptly duplicitous leader they supposedly elected last year.

That's good news for the administration. The bad news: the appearance of a halfway acceptable replacement could change everything. Eyes are currently on Susan Roces, the actress widow of action star Fernando Poe Jr, but it could be anyone else. Like some cursed ruler in a fairy tale, Mrs. Arroyo now has to spot and somehow ruin the person who could rise to succeed her.

What's ominous is that even the absence of a possible replacement has not stopped a growing clamor for Mrs. Arroyo to step down. The political landscape is cracking and beginning to emit steam. The scandal has provoked mocking street demonstrations that Filipinos specialize in; church leaders, university heads and professional groups are among those who've joined the militants and the Estrada camp in openly asking the president to quit.

And to think, she brought all this upon herself, through what she coyly terms a "lapse of judgement." Some lapse. The president of the republic, overheard on a bugged line asking a shady senior official of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to guarantee a million votes for her even as the votes are still being tallied. That same president, when found out, stonewalling for weeks in the face of damning evidence and mounting ridicule. Then, when she admits it's her voice, denying she was doing anything wrong.

Mrs. Arroyo argues that talking to an election commissioner might be naughty, but it isn't nefarious. She must be joking. This particular commissioner - identified as "Garci" on tape and widely believed to be Virgilio Garcillano - is a known specialist in election fixing; he's supposed to have rigged polls for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Significantly, President Arroyo appointed him commissioner despite strong objections by former Comelec chairman Christian Monsod.

Much attention has focussed on Mrs. Arroyo's bugged conversations with "Garci." But the contentious tape - a three-hour extract from a wiretap military agents put on Garcillano last year - has other explosive stuff. In it, "Garci" advises one caller that the best way to silence a witness to electoral fraud is to kidnap her family. He is also heard talking to someone who sounds very much like the president's spouse, Mike Arroyo, who asks for "help" for one candidate who's losing in the count. Another phone pal, someone who sounds like candidate senator Robert Barbers, wants the tally to favor him. "Garci" asks for one and a half to two million pesos to be delivered to his secretary.

Either President Arroyo didn't know the moral (sub) caliber of the person she was talking to - which casts doubt on her intelligence - or she knew exactly what peculiar talents he had. She claims she was just trying to "protect" her votes, but if that were the case why call a mere election commissioner and not the Comelec chairman himself? At any rate, just the fact of a president phoning an election official is appalling - Comelec is supposed to be as impartial as the Supreme Court. Commissioner Garcilliano has since made himself scarce, while Senator Robert Barbers, who lost the election, suddenly announced he's not pursuing a protest he filed.

Despite the best efforts of the Arroyo administration, the story's unraveling, and what could emerge is a conspiracy to undermine the right of a Filipino voter to elect a fool into office. If there was cheating done to make Mrs. Arroyo win, it seems a matter of shifting tens of thousands of votes, not millions of them. Most disappointing of all, it appears the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), an independent poll-watching group, colluded when it only tallied 83 per cent of the vote and then stopped its quick count.

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