Garci’s gambit

In chess, a gambit is a calculated move that offers the sacrifice of a pawn or another piece in order to secure a positional advantage. Former election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano made a clever one, and the nation took it. He has re-appeared, and so he is no longer missing.  He has talked to the media, yet he has done so wholly on his own terms.  He has made himself accessible, but he has maintained full control of the communication process.  Congress has an unserved arrest warrant for him, but its agents still do not know where to find him.  Garcillano says he is ready to talk, but he insists on setting the terms of his own interrogation.  Score: Garcillano: 1, Nation: 0.

Everything that Garcillano has said so far may be summed up in two sentences: First, that he did not rig the election results in Mindanao, and second, that politicians from both the administration and the opposition talked to him and sought his help during the last election. The first is the equivalent of the principal theme of Gloria MacapagalArroyo’s “I-am-sorry” speech – “I did not cheat in the election.  I won fair and square.”  The second is a variation of GMA’s insight into the nature of Philippine politics: Our politics is so “degenerated” that no one who embarks on a political career can hope to emerge from it with clean hands.  Score: Gloria: 2, Nation: 0.

Until we actually see Garcillano answering questions under oath before a congressional hearing, it would be difficult to guess where and how far this script will go.  He has said everything that Ms Arroyo wants the public to hear – that he did not cheat for her.  And he has aired a veiled threat to the opposition – that he is prepared to implicate them.  From hereon, he may simply ignore summonses from both houses of Congress until they agree to his terms.  He has said he decided to go into hiding out of fear for his life, not because he is guilty.

The timing of his return could not have been better.  The peso is gaining in value.  Filipino athletes are scooping medals in the ongoing SEA Games.  Christmas is in the air.  People are tired of politics. Most important, enough time has passed since the Garci Tapes scandal exploded. All the damaging information that could be used against Ms Arroyo should have been exhausted by now. There would be no reason to make any blind moves like Sec. Bunye’s clumsy attempt at a cover-up on June 6 and GMA’s neither-here-nor-there confession on June 27.  By now, Malacanang’s army of spin doctors will have written a focused and internally consistent script – one that offers a plausible version of what happened.  Even if closure is not achieved, Garci’s reappearance lifts some of the pressure from Gloria.

We have to remind ourselves that the principal figure in this election fraud drama is still Gloria, not Garci.  When she apologized to the nation for talking to “a Comelec official” while the 2004 election returns were being canvassed, she had said that she owed it to the nation “to set the record straight” on the controversial tapes.  She has not done so until now.

Many questions are still hanging.  The most important are the following:  (1) Was Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano the “Comelec official” Gloria talked to during the election?  (2) Were the conversations she had with Garcillano the same ones that were caught on tape? Which of these actually took place and which ones, if any, were fabricated or doctored?  (3) She said she made those calls only because she was concerned “to protect her votes.”  How exactly did she expect Garcillano to do that for her? (4) The wiretapping of presidential calls is a serious breach of national security. Has she ordered a thorough investigation of the origins of these tapes? Who did the wiretapping, and on whose orders?

On several occasions, when Ms Arroyo faced the media, she was consistently evasive on these questions. She justified her refusal to provide straightforward answers by invoking her rights as an accused in the pending impeachment cases. On a technicality, her allies in the House threw away those complaints last Sept. 7.  Three months have passed since then.  Ms Arroyo is no longer facing impeachment, yet she has not seen it fit to set the record straight on the Garci Tapes.

All that we have heard from her, so far, is an admission that she talked to a Comelec official while the canvassing was going on, and that she knew this to be improper. She has apologized to the nation for this “lapse in judgment.”

We can all move on from here and forget this sordid chapter in our nation’s political life.   Or we can continue to ask Ms Arroyo the same questions until we get straight answers, and to demand her resignation until she stops stonewalling on an issue that is fundamental to the future of democracy in our country.

The practical ones will argue that we must now put this issue behind us, because keeping it alive only destroys the nation and, besides, there is no viable alternative to Ms Arroyo.  The idealists, on the other hand, say that it is not right that we allow ourselves to be governed by a regime based on lies, and that we owe it to our children to determine once and for all whether, as suggested by the tapes and by investigative media, Ms Arroyo personally conspired with a top election official to manipulate the canvassing process in order to pad her votes.

Can we still fix our politics?  That is the crux of the matter.

Garcillano’s testimony will not resolve this for us.  It is a question that we must answer ourselves.  Believing that we can is the beginning of reform.

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