“Hello Garci? Hello Ma’am”

This is how the conversation between the principal and her agent typically begins.  She speaks in a low and measured tone, usually to bring up a problem, or to suggest a course of action.  Most of the time, he, in an exquisitely fawning way, assures her that the problem is being attended and that he is on top of the situation.  Her calls are brief, and she always goes straight to the point.

The Palace has denied that the voices in the controversial tapes belong to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.  But, previous to this, Press Secretary and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye admitted that the female voice was indeed Ms. Arroyo’s, except that the person she was talking to was not Comelec Commissioner Garcillano, but a political supporter named “Gary.”  Bunye claimed that the original tape had been doctored to make it appear the President was having a conversation with Garcillano.  Now, the official line is that Bunye made a mistake.  The voice is not GMA’s. There is no original tape, and all the existing tapes are fakes.

This controversy has legal and political implications.  Wire-tapping, no matter for what purpose and by whom it is undertaken, is a serious offense under our laws.  But, curiously, if these are fake conversations, as Malacanang claims, who is violating the antiwiretapping law?

More interesting than the legal aspect is the political angle.  If enough Filipinos become convinced that President Arroyo privately conferred with a Comelec commissioner during the crucial period of the recent presidential election — even hinting in one such alleged conversation that the election results be managed so that her lead over her closest rival does not fall below one million votes — I do not think she would be able to govern or remain in office for long.  Impeachment would be the least of her worries; she would be asked to resign or else face ouster.

The identity of the speakers in these conversations can, of course, be established through “voice print” analysis. My own interest is different. Out of academic curiosity, I listened repeatedly to broadcasts of these conversations, and studied the published transcripts. I wanted to know if the conversations were not contrived, or whether they exhibited rational properties.  There is a sub-specialty in sociology called “ethnomethodology” that inquires into the rational characteristics of conversations.  The method looks at the orderly nature of human interaction – a conversation for example – as an ongoing achievement by the participants.  A lot of meanings are exchanged in the course of the conversation, beyond what may be gleaned from a merely literal interpretation of words.

Normal conversations are littered with what analysts call “glosses” – expressions that are intelligible only in the context of background understandings.  A gloss is a short-cut, a device that makes elaborations unnecessary, but yields its meanings only in the light of shared background information.  It is easy to fabricate one conversation, but it is not easy to invent a whole series while maintaining stable identities and a consistent tone.

A whole world has been assumed and brought out in these fascinating conversations – the world of political fraud and electoral fixing. The key figure is a male voice variously referred to as “Commissioner” or “Garci.”  It was obviously his phone that was bugged.  By the types of situations brought to him for fixing, by the variety of people desperately seeking his help, and by the frightening ease with which he dispenses solutions – one would know that this man is an old hand in the underworld of electoral fraud.

He knows exactly where to pull additional votes and for how much, and how to deal with recalcitrant election registrars who don’t cooperate. Politicians come to him for help like anxious little children. They rely on him to do all the dirty tricks they need to do to win, things they themselves would sanctimoniously decry in public.

This is the political operator that “Ma’am” repeatedly calls as she nervously awaits the results from far-flung towns in Mindanao. Listen to this cryptic exchange:  “Hello Ma’am?/  Hello, meron tayong statement of votes, ERs para sa Sulu?/   Saan po Ma’am?/  Sulu, Sulu./  Oo Ma’am meron po./  Nagco-correspond?/  Oo Ma’am./ Kumpleto?/  Oo Ma’am.  Lahat ho meron, hindi po namin ika-count kung…. /  Ok, ok.”

On the surface it does look like an innocent exchange.  The key word here is “nagco-correspond” – a gloss that refers to the practice of fixing canvass results at, say, the provincial level so that they are not at variance with precinct election returns or statement of votes for municipalities.  The other gloss is the question “Kumpleto?”  This is not a harmless inquiry. Given the kind of response it elicits, it is an urgent demand to make sure the doctoring is done with care.

One knows this from examining other conversations:  “Hello/ Hello Ma’am, good morning.  Ok Ma’am, mas mataas ho siya pero magcompensate po sa Lanao yan./ So will I still lead by more than 1M overall?/ More or less, but it is still an advantage Ma’am.  Parang ganun din ang lalabas./  Oo, pero it will not be less than 1M?/ Pipilitin ho natin yan.  Pero, as of the other day, 982./ Kaya nga eh./  And then, if we can get more in Lanao./  Hindi pa ba tapos?/  Hindi pa ho.

Meron pa hong darating na 7 municipalities./ Ah ok, ok./  Sige po./ Ok, ok, ok…

This man is not in the business of counting votes; he produces them.

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