One of the two poll officials is willing to testify before any probe body. NEWSBREAK is withholding their identities pending their appearance in an official investigation into the so-called "Garci" tapes. One of them, based in the Comelec's main office in Manila, helped supervise the elections in Sulu in May 2004.The two sources identified the military officers involved but, for fear of reprisal, requested anonymity. It was the first time the two sources talked to the media.
On May 4 that year, or six days before the elections, the Manila-based election official was invited by a senior general to a hotel in Zamboanga City. In the hotel, the election official saw a number of military officers and concluded that this was not going to be one of the regular meetings with Comelec deputies (the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police serve as Comelec deputies during elections).
The source decided to leave the hotel but was approached by a junior officer, who told the former about the agenda: to ensure the President's victory. The source quoted the officer as saying: "We have orders from higher ups. We have to make her [Arroyo] win."
The junior officer referred to the plan as "Operation Gloria," which sought to have the votes apportioned at 70-20-10 in favor of Ms. Arroyo. The officer reportedly explained: "70 percent of the votes would go to the President, 20 percent to FPJ [Fernando Poe Jr.], and 10 percent to [Panfilo] Lacson."
The election official refused to take part in the operation. Undaunted, the young military officer sought permission to "use the election officers in Sulu." Not wanting to incur the military's ire, the source recalled telling the officer: "Do what you have to do, but I cannot help you. If you want, go to the precinct level. I am only going to read what's on the municipal certificate of canvass."
We contacted an election officer based in Sulu to check if the military participated in vote rigging in the province. The election officer agreed to talk to us on condition of anonymity. She said she had been traumatized by her experience with the military.
An Officer's Bribe
She confirmed that during the elections, she received P50,000 from an Army captain. She said she accepted the money out of fear. But after consulting her superior, she decided to return it by getting from the captain his bank account details and depositing it there.
"I was crying during the canvassing because the military wanted me to tamper with the elections," the election officer told NEWSBREAK in a phone interview. "They said the President must win. I was shivering and I wanted to get out of the canvass area. The pressure was too much," the source said in Filipino. Canvassing for the municipal and provincial results was held inside Camp Gen. Teodulfo Bautista in Jolo.
We sought out these two election officers to check information revealed in the "Garci" tapes, supposedly containing wiretapped conversations between President Arroyo and Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano. In one portion of the recording, Garcillano talked about the military's participation in what appears to be a cheating operation for the President.
In a phone conversation on May 29, 2004, a woman who sounded like the President expressed concern that the opposition was threatening to expose cheating in a particular area. The woman told Garcillano that the opposition appeared to have secured affidavits in which teachers and the board of canvassers stated that they were made to cheat. In that conversation, Garcillano blamed one General Habacon for the problem, implying that he had messed up the job.
In a June 2 conversation with someone who sounded like the President, Garcillano again blamed the military for the reported foul-up in Basilan and Lanao del Sur. "Alam nyo naman ang mga military, dun e, hindi masyadong marunong kasi silang gumawa. Katulad dun sa Sulu (You know the military there [in Basilan and Lanao del Sur], they're not that good unlike those in Sulu)." Garcillano told the woman.
NEWSBREAK mistakenly reported in its July 18 issue that Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon was at the time the commander of the Army's first infantry division, which had jurisdiction over Sulu, Basilan, and the Zamboanga Peninsula. During the elections, Habacon was only in charge of Sulu, as commander of Joint Task Force Comet, which has military jurisdiction over the whole island province. The first-division commander then was Maj. Gen. Trifonio Salazar, now retired.
Habacon denied insinuations that he could have been a party to poll cheating. "I have never been involved in any fraudulent acts," he said. Habacon is at present the commander of the first infantry division. When asked to comment on "Operation Gloria," he said: "I have never heard of that kind of animal except now that you asked me."
While the President won in Sulu, it was a tight race, with her getting 78,429 votes over Fernando Poe Jr.'s 60,807. (In the five provinces composing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, where Poe was concededly popular, it was only in Tawi-tawi that he won—49,803 votes against Arroyo's 33,634.)
The two Comelec sources privy to the Sulu operation told NEWSBREAK that Poe could have easily beaten Arroyo in the province if not for the military's hand in cheating.
According to the Manila-based source, municipal election officers in Sulu were offered by military officers between P50,000 and P150,000 to tamper with the results. To the Sulu-based source, this was the first time that the military "played with the results" of the elections in that province.
Unable to take the pressure, the election officer said she "walked out" of the canvassing and went into hiding in Zamboanga City. She was luckier than another election officer, Cipriano Ebron, who, if the wiretapped conversations are to be believed, was forced to go into hiding after soldiers got angry with him for his crude tampering with election documents in the town of Panguntaran.
A check with Comelec showed that the Panguntaran certificate of canvass (COC) had been tampered with. In the COC, President Arroyo got 8,716 votes (in Arabic numerals), but obviously her actual votes, written in words, totaled only 716. Poe's votes were reduced to 252 (Arabic numerals) when his votes in words were 4,253.
The Manila-based source said that the cheating was most apparent in the municipalities that were late in submitting their canvass results.
Minutes of the Sulu board of canvassers show that in the towns that submitted late canvass results, Arroyo won by a landslide. These are Siasi, Talipao, and Indanan. In Siasi, Arroyo got 9,231 votes against Poe's 640 while in Talipao, Arroyo got 7,498 versus Poe's 3,710. In Indanan, Arroyo got 11,254 while Poe got 6,280.
A General's Plea
The source recalled that when belated results still showed a close fight between Ms. Arroyo and Poe, a military general approached her during the provincial canvassing and asked "Wala na bang magagawa? (Can nothing else be done?)" The source said she told him it was too late to further change the results.
Former ARMM regional election director Helen Aguila Flores acknowledged that there were problems in Sulu. Flores was relieved from her post on May 6, 2004, four days before the elections, for still unclear reasons. She told NEWSBREAK that before this, she had verbal clashes with Habacon regarding the clustering of precincts in the province.
Flores said she was hoping that the clustering system in the 2001 senatorial race would be followed in the 2004 polls because the previous one worked well. But Habacon reportedly would hear none of it. "He wanted to reduce the number of polling places and my concern then was to avoid disenfranchising the voters and avoid a situation where warring groups would meet in one polling center," Flores explained.
The old cluster put the second district of Sulu under the jurisdiction of the Marines, but Flores said Habacon wanted this area placed under the Army. She also said that one of her election officers in Panamao town, Shameer Abdulcadil, had been abducted and was missing for two days during the election period. "Abdulcadil reported the incident to me and he recalled that it was an Army jeep that was used in abducting him," Flores said.
Habacon denied that his unit had harassed election personnel in the province.
All the complaints of election officers in Sulu reached the Comelec's main office. The Manila-based source said that she met with Garcillano at the main office and told him about the problems in Sulu.
Of course, the "Hello, Garci" tapes hadn't come out yet at that time.
—With reports from Julie S. Alipala in Zamboanga City
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