Lessons From Garcillano: Arroyo Was Too Hands On

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Lessons From Garcillano: Arroyo Was Too Hands On

by Manuel L. Quezon III

After months of having played “The Fugitive,” Virgilio Garcillano has resurfaced. He claims, interestingly enough, that he feared for his life: What’s interesting is that either the administration or opposition had reasons to claim it, he suggested. Now that he has surfaced, he has basically said to both political camps, “a plague on both your houses,” while strenuously objecting to characterizations of his having helped mastermind fraud for President Arroyo, while darkly hinting that during the campaign, the opposition liked to call him up as well. A good summary of Garcillano’s position, thus seems to be (to quote Bart Simpson): “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove anything.”

With regards to the first claim, it’s a natural one to make. With regards to the second, it is one that can be demolished, either with witnesses or physical evidence: Except, as a master of electoral fraud, it is in the interests of both Garcillano’s patrons and his colleagues, to keep the machinery of cheating intact for the next elections (or at least, plebiscite on a new constitution). With regards to the third. At this point in time, it may be provable, but the game has moved much further afield. For to questions concerning allegations of cheating in May 2004, must be added allegations of a grand cover-up taking place since July 2005.

As part of the background research for a series of news magazine stories, I was recently interviewed on the subject of the last elections. I said it was a combination -a fusion— of two traditions of electoral fraud. The first tradition has been with Filipino politicians at least since independence in 1946, when it became clear that voters weren’t as docile as they were prior to the Japanese Occupation. Politicians then had to resort to physical intimidation and bribery to make sure they got voters to the polls. And if that failed, they could always stuff ballot boxes with fake ballots. Ferdinand Marcos mastered this method, adding to it modern marketing and advertising strategies, and the uninhibited use of patronage. Among other things, he moved the date of elections from September or October to May, guaranteeing not only a relatively rain-free campaign season, but one during which largesse can be dispensed to farmers. The pretext being that it’s planting and harvesting time, so elections or not, the government has to do something.

Still, the weakness of the traditional way of cheating was that it still relied on the old-fashioned requirement of influencing voter behavior. You still had to have a vast army of local leaders, any one of whom could be pocketing patronage and bribe funds instead of doling them out (which actually happened to Marcos in the crucial 1986 elections). Voters could also pocket bribes but vote their conscience. And with media focusing on elections, ballot-snatching became an increasingly risky tactic of last resort.

Significantly enough, the EDSA Revolution of 1986 was sparked, in part, because computer operators walked out of the canvassing, claiming they’d been instructed to manipulate the figures. The Filipino public would not hear of this tactic again until 1992, when, in the first post-Marcos presidential elections, it was alleged that the winning candidate achieved victory through a form of institutionalized accounting errors. This is now known as “dagdad-bawas,” usually translated as “vote padding and shaving,” and is breathtaking in its brilliance and effect. You do not have to bribe voters; you do not have to threaten them with goons. You only have to focus your money and persuasive powers on those tasked with counting the votes. You do not even need computers (the failure of computerization as a means to ensure fraud-free elections might be traceable to the trauma Marcos suffered at the hands of those vote tabulators in 1986).

It’s no coincidence that it was veterans of the Marcos electoral machinery who were widely-suspected of having engineered “dagdag-bawas” in 1992. They couldn’t repeat the feat in 1998, because the lead of Joseph Estrada was so large, and unquestionably so, that his defeat wouldn’t have been plausible. However, in 2004, the surveys indicated a tighter race than both leading contenders would have hoped, and thus opened up immense possibilities for the use of the padding and shaving strategy.

I told the interviewer that President Arroyo’s campaign resorted to tried and tested patronage strategies, some of them invented by her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal. Among such strategies was outfitting an army of itinerant street sweepers in blue shirts (Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign color), emblazoned with her initials. The argument was, elections or no elections, the streets have to be swept, all throughout the country. A further argument was made, taking advantage of the Marcos legacy of a summer campaign season, that the farmers had to be attended to. Dole outs were authorized, for fertilizer, though the fertilizer apparently didn’t reach many farmers (and what fertilizer was purchased seems to have been the liquid kind for orchids, which rice farmers don’t use: But many of the political class have wives who fancy orchid-raising).

The government propaganda machinery was harnessed; Mrs. Arroyo’s leading opponent was subjected to questions ranging from his citizenship, to his sobriety, to his natural children. And finally, the votes were padded, and shaved, and according to some investigative journalists, the ballots and other documents that might disprove the official figures were rounded up and replaced after the elections. The perfect crime, in other words, except for something that we see time and again in crime thrillers: The criminal got too cocky. Or to put it in management-speak, the arch-criminal was too “hands-on” in her management style.

And so the story came back to Garcillano, and the question of “Garci” has continued to haunt the president of the Philippines. The most remarkable thing about the whole case is that “Garci” has survived long enough to resurface. Or does that indicate that Mrs. Arroyo’s strategists are far more sophisticated than people think? Maybe so: After all, they were sophisticated enough to have perpetrated the Mother of All Electoral Frauds; and it would have been smooth sailing if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Arroyo making those phone calls, and someone taping them. It’s noteworthy, too, that it seems those responsible for the padding and shaving, didn’t do the taping. Leaving us with this moral lesson, such as it is: if you call in the experts, leave it to the experts. Nothing good comes from second-guessing the pros.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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