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The nation still begs for answers

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“The people have spoken; the nation must move on.”

These words summarized the messages sent by the two co-chairmen of the Congressional Canvassing Committee at the start of the joint plenary session of Congress last Wednesday (June 23, 2004) as it began its final round of debates on the controversial canvass of election returns in the just-concluded presidential elections.

The joint plenary session was the final stage for the proclamation of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the country’s newly elected president.

“The long wait is now over, the tally is complete,” said Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan. “After a rancorous and draining electoral exercise, we can now move on. The country can and now must heal.”

“We heard the people; they have made their choice,” said House Deputy Speaker Raul Gonzales.

Well said. Except that the opposition was not ready to accept the portion that stated “The people have spoken.” After the “rancorous and draining political exercise” – both in the polls and in Congress – the question remained: Was it the true voice of the people? Did the result of the congressional canvass reflect the true voice of the people? Did the result of the congressional canvass reflect the results of the votes actually cast during the elections?

The answers to these questions lie in those 25 ballot boxes that the opposition, led by the indefatigable Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., begged to be opened, but which the overwhelming majority in the Congressional Canvass Committee refused to open. The answers may as well lie in just three of those 25 ballot boxes that Pimentel and company wanted to be opened, never mind the other 22, just to prove their point that the administration turned to massive and systematic cheating to overcome a more than 500,000 margin opposition candidate Fernando Poe Jr. had over Arroyo.

Pimentel wanted the 25 ballot boxes opened, because they were sure the certificates of canvass submitted to Congress were altered, and did not tally with the actual votes cast in those 25 areas, mostly in Mindanao and the Visayas, where it was suspected the ruling party would do most of the cheating when Arroyo appointed to the Commission on Elections a person suspected of masterminding poll cheating operations in Mindanao in 1992.

But no, the ruling majority would have none of it. Saying that opening the ballot boxes and scrutinizing the election returns of just three areas would unduly delay the proclamation of the elected president on June 30, 2004, the ruling majority refused to open the boxes. Obviously, the honorable senators and congressmen knew that each time they opened one of those boxes, they would be opening a Pandora’s box, or to put it more bluntly, a can of worms.

In those three or 25 boxes apparently lie all the mystery behind the questionable victory of an unpopular incumbent, or maybe the final nails that could seal the coffin of democracy in the Philippines, or the truth that could irreparably destroy the credibility of the entire Philippine electoral process, the very backbone of Philippine democracy.

Instead of crossing swords with the opposition for almost six weeks, why didn’t the committee just allow the opening of the three ballot boxes? Surely, it would not have taken six weeks to compare the certified election returns to the certificate of canvass for those three areas. If it would take more than three weeks to tabulate and confirm election results in just three areas, then let us just junk the entire electoral process and just resort to a drawing of lots or tossing of a coin to choose our leaders.

There must be a pressing reason for the tyrannical majority in that committee to reject passion and reason for the opening of the boxes. The majority members were willing to risk the outrage of a disillusioned segment of the population spilling onto the streets or exploding into turmoil, just for those three or 25 ballot boxes?

What’s in those boxes? The nation begs an answer.

These were my exact words on June 24, 2004 (On Distant Shore, “Cans of Worms”), a day after the Congressional Canvass Committee abruptly ended canvass and proclaimed Arroyo the winner of the May 2004 presidential elections, the most controversial and contentious ever in the history of the country.

More than seven years later, the nation has another opportunity to seek the answer to those questions: Was it the true voice of the people? Did the result of the congressional canvass reflect the true voice of the people? Did the result of the congressional canvass reflect the results of the votes actually cast during the elections? What’s in those boxes?

The reemergence of long-time fugitive Lintang Bedol, the sworn affidavit of former Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Zaldy Ampatuan, the surprise testimony of Police Senior Superintendent Rafael Santiago and four members of his Special Action Forces team that broke into the Batasan four times at the height of the canvass allegedly to switch boxes of election returns with tampered ones, and the availability of former Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano of the “Hello Garci” notoriety offer the country a chance to unload the baggage that has burdened the people for years.

The testimonies of Bedol, Ampatuan, and Santiago and company, coupled with a claim by the official printer of the election returns presented during Sen. Loren Legarda’s electoral protest before the Supreme Court that the ERs presented to the Congressional Canvass Committee were fake, should be enough to finally provide the answer to the questions that remained unanswered throughout Arroyo’s tumultuous regime and to ferret out the truth about that most contentious political exercise.

All their testimonies tend to confirm what was first revealed in the “Hello Garci” tape where Arroyo was heard talking to Garcillano seeking reassurance of a margin of at least one million votes over Poe – that Arroyo left no stone unturned to make sure he won over the popular actor, including switching ballot boxes in the precinct level in Mindanao and switching election returns at the Batasan.

All Arroyo’s camp could say when asked about the recent testimonies was that it was “an old story,” saying that these allegations were made before and were never proved. They were never proved because twice in that same building where the ER switching were made, Arroyo’s congressional allies bullied the outnumbered minority to end the canvass without opening the contested returns and to proclaim Arroyo without hearing the opposition’s voice.

Twice that week, while most of the people slept in the middle of the night, the time most robberies are made, Arroyo succeeded in suppressing the truth and destroying democracy.

One week after the proclamation, I wrote (On Distant Shore, “Moving on,” June 31, 2004):

“The legitimacy of Arroyo’s political victory will not depend on the electoral tribunal, or the street protests that are only bound to fail and falter. Her administration’s legitimacy will depend on how she dispenses her newly acquired mandate and power. If she succeeds in inspiring hope among the people, if she succeeds in instituting genuine reforms in government, if she provides the dedicated and selfless leadership that the nation needs, then the charges of cheating will be forgotten and forgiven, the people will applaud her victory, and the nation will finally move forward, and not just move on.”

But for six more years since then, Arroyo, sensing she could do away with almost anything if she had Congress and the Supreme Court under her control, did exactly the opposite of what she could have done for the people to accept her presidency — plundering the country’s coffers, trampling on democratic processes and institutions, pulling off another fraud in the next election in 2007, and even attempting to extend her term beyond the constitutional limits by relentlessly pushing for charter change (cha-cha).

And in all these crimes to the people, Congress just stood by while the Supreme Court gave its nod, plunging the country and the people into the most detestable period equaled only by the dark days of the Marcos dictatorship.

Now, the nation has a chance to redeem its soul, to correct the mistakes of the past, to punish the guilty in the numerous corruption scandals that plagued the country in those nine years of Arroyo’s rule, and to finally move on without the baggage of unresolved crimes and abuses.

President Benigno S. Aquino III renewed his pledge to win the war against corruption during his second State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA). It will take years to prove those plunder charges, but he can start by focusing on going after the perpetrators of the election frauds in 2004 and 2007, where witnesses stand ready to nail down the culprits and where there is already a preponderance of evidence.

Only when the guilty in this most heinous of crimes against democracy and decency have been put behind bars in Muntinlupa, not under house detention in some resort or mansion, will the country finally be able to move on.

By Val G. Abelgas




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