‘Emperor’ as AFP chief raises fears of poll fraud
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—Members of both sides of the political spectrum are antsy over President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s appointment of the “Emperor” as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff.
Retired Maj. Gen. Ramon Montaño Tuesday said ex-officers like himself who were “in touch with the still idealistic elements” of the military were apprehensive that the AFP under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Delfin Bangit would “again be used to frustrate the people’s will.”
In the 2004 presidential election, Ms Arroyo “skillfully used her cabal of blindly loyal military officers and political running dogs to destroy the political opposition,” according to Montaño.
It was a reference to the purported involvement of ranking military officers in ensuring Ms Arroyo’s victory over her then rival, actor Fernando Poe Jr., as revealed in the “Hello Garci” tapes.
The tapes contained supposed conversations between Ms Arroyo and then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano during the counting of the votes, for which the President later apologized.
“We pray that this desperate plot of this administration to cling to power shall be stopped by the might of the Filipino people and the idealistic, honorable members of the AFP,” Montaño said in a statement.
Presidential candidates Benigno Aquino III (Liberal Party) and Joseph Estrada (Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino) also expressed dismay at Bangit’s appointment.
“We were hopeful that [Ms Arroyo] would be magnanimous in her exit from power by appointing someone who is beyond reproach. But she chose someone who is avidly loyal to her,” Aquino said in a phone interview.
Aquino said Bangit’s appointment had sent alarm bells ringing over the military’s role in the May elections considering that Ms Arroyo had not fully explained the “Hello Garci” scandal in 2004 and the 12-0 score in Maguindanao in favor of administration senatorial candidates in 2007.
He said that he expected the President, in another controversial move, to name the replacement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno with or without a nomination from the Judicial and Bar Council. (Puno retires on May 17.)
From Davao City, Estrada said Bangit was more loyal to Ms Arroyo than to the Constitution.
“The bottom line is that he’s a true-blooded man of GMA. He’ll risk his life for GMA,” Estrada said by phone, adding:
“There are rumors that General Bangit and his men would be used to manipulate the outcome of the elections. It’s a recipe for unrest. [But] let’s give Bangit a chance to disprove all the allegations against him.”
In case of power vacuum
Through its secretary general Renato Reyes, the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said Bangit’s appointment as AFP chief of staff “creates greater uncertainties” for the May elections.
“The biggest question in Bangit’s appointment is his perceived closeness to the President, which, in the event of a failure of elections, may be useful in keeping Ms Arroyo in power indefinitely. He may be [Ms] Arroyo’s ace up her sleeve should there be a power vacuum,” Bayan said in a statement.
It said Bangit had yet to show whether his loyalties lay with the Constitution or with Ms Arroyo, “his adopted classmate” in the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).
Bangit is to take over from Gen. Victor Ibrado, who turns 56, the mandatory retirement age for the military, on Wednesday.
But activist priest Fr. Jose Dizon, a convenor of the election watchdog Kontra Daya, said Bangit’s appointment could bring about a reprise of the “Hello Garci” election fraud controversy.
Bayan said the uproar over Bangit’s appointment could have been avoided had Ms Arroyo let her successor choose the next AFP chief of staff.
“All of Ms Arroyo’s appointments at this point are suspect. No one trusts her. No one believes she will quietly step down when her term ends [in June]. Everything she is doing is for political survival beyond 2010,” it said.
Bayan said Bangit, who had variously headed the Intelligence Service of the AFP and the Presidential Security Group, should issue “a categorical statement” that in the event of a failure of elections, he would “not move to install Ms Arroyo in power indefinitely.”
“He should pledge to uphold civilian supremacy and he should not let the military stop peaceful mass protest actions,” it said.
Bayan also said that as AFP chief of staff, Bangit should uphold human rights, especially in relation to the 43 health workers detained at Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal, since early last month.
Malacañang took pains to douse the uproar.
In his first news briefing at the Palace, Leandro Mendoza, the newly named executive secretary, said Bangit was a “very professional soldier” loyal only to the Constitution and the people.
Mendoza, a PMA graduate who once served as director general of the Philippine National Police, assured reporters that the military was “a professional organization.”
“Once you’re appointed, your focus is not personal anymore. [It’s] not on the appointing authority anymore but, particularly, on your institution,” he said.
Press Secretary Crispulo Icban went on RMN radio to dismiss fears that the administration would use Bangit to help its presidential candidate win in May.
“Those are just fears … And the President has shown that she is not active in the presidential election and is just focused on her candidacy [for representative of the second district of Pampanga],” the press secretary said.
According to Icban, Ms Arroyo chose Bangit over other candidates for AFP chief of staff because he met the criteria that included loyalty and trust.
“And he has shown that he is a good general,” Icban said.
No restless soldiers
The AFP itself, through its spokesperson Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner, downplayed rumors that Bangit’s appointment was intended to disrupt the elections.
“We want to tell the public that there is no need to worry about the designation of General Bangit as the next chief of staff,” Brawner told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo, the AFP’s general headquarters in Quezon City.
“The AFP is a professional organization,” Brawner said, adding that even Ibrado was confident of Bangit’s abilities as military officer.
Brawner said that during the Army’s testimonial parade for Ibrado at Fort Bonifacio on Monday, Bangit himself declared that he would be “nonpartisan.”
“He vowed that the AFP will not be used to protect the interest of some groups, or for any [kind of] cheating in the elections,” Brawner said.
Mendoza said he saw “no connection” between Bangit and speculation of rigging in the May elections.
But he pointed out that the military should play a “very important” role in elections, particularly in providing security in areas “where government is scarce,” to ensure the success of the polls.
He also said talk that Bangit’s assumption to the top AFP post would generate unrest among the soldiers was “not an issue.”
Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Manuel Villar acknowledged that it was Ms Arroyo’s prerogative to appoint the AFP chief of staff even in the waning days of her presidency.
“I really don’t know [Bangit] that well. But I understand that in our system of government, it’s the President that makes the appointment, and I understand that that is consistent with our laws,” Villar said in Filipino at a press conference in Davao City.
“So how can we [oppose Bangit’s appointment]? We can’t assume that it’s not proper [on the mere assumption] that he will create chaos,” Villar said.
He said he had his “personal choices” for the post, but did not name them.
“I always sleep soundly regardless of whoever is the AFP chief of staff,” he said.
Villar also said what was crucial for the nation was for the AFP chief of staff and all citizens to “safeguard the institutions of democracy at all times.” Reports from Fe Zamora, Alcuin Papa, Leila B. Salaverria, Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., Christine O. Avendaño, Norman Bordadora, Marlon Ramos, Michael Lim Ubac and TJ Burgonio