Marcos keeps three key election bodies firmly under thumb. Concern grows that Philippine presidential election will be rigged

There is widespread concern that the government of President Ferdinand Marcos will rig the presidential election scheduled for next February. Despite official denials that the government plans to manipulate the election, President Marcos is keeping three key, theoretically impartial bodies firmly under his control.

The Commission on Elections supervises the polls. Of the organization's seven commissioners, six are pro-government appointees. The Government Printing Office prints the ballots; its director is a former intelligence operative who served in the office of the President. The intervention of the armed forces in elections has in the past allegedly swung the vote in the government's favor. Marcos has promised a reorganization of top commanders, but the revamp may neither come soon enough nor be sweeping enou gh to affect the forthcoming election.

With those three institutions firmly under the President's thumb, chances of a clean election seem dim. Below is a more detailed look at them. Commission on Election

``Comelec,'' as the commission is invariably known, is housed in a collection of ramshackle buildings in the old part of Manila.

The commission used to be an independent body, but since martial law (declared September 1972, lifted January 1981), it has come to be viewed as an extension of the President. From 1973 to 1980, the commission chairman was Leonardo Perez, a longtime Marcos associate who is now minister for political affairs.

After the May 1984 elections the Comelec heard some 62 appeals. It decided all but two in favor of the ruling party, the New Society Movement. Had the appeals been evenly divided between opposition and government, Marcos' critics point out, the number of government and opposition members of the National Assembly would have been equal.

One of the successful petitioners was Minister Perez, who, a senior legal official says, was the ``clear loser'' in his election.

``He manufactured spurious returns and switched them for the real ones,'' the official said.

Comelec's current poor reputation appears to have embarrassed the President. During a meeting at the presidential palace on July 29, Marcos told Comelec officials to improve its ``eroded'' public image, according to one person present at the meeting. It is widely expected that he will attempt to improve the image somewhat by appointing two independent figures to the vacant commissioner positions. This will not, however, diminish the government's control over the organization.

The commission has also come under discreet pressure from the United States. On Nov. 20, four US diplomats had breakfast with several Comelec commissioners. They are believed to have urged, among other things, the accreditation of the independent electoral watchdog body called ``Namfrel'' -- the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections -- for the next polls. So far, the commission has been reluctant to do this.

Though many observers of Filipino elections believe Comelec would have some role in any irregularities in the coming election, some expect the focus of such activity to shift to Government Printing Office.

``I think most of the fraud this time will be out in the field,'' says an official involved in electoral affairs. There, he predicts, government supporters will be ``stuffing boxes with falsified ballots, and substituting the real returns [tally sheets] with ones that show the President winning.''

This sort of fraud, the official says, will require the Printing Office to print more ballots than legally permitted. The Printing Office

The Government Printing Office is situated about a mile away from Comelec in another cavernous building in the port area of the city.

Its director, Florendo Pablo Jr., told this correspondent that his last government post had been as ``confidential assistant'' in the office of the President -- an intelligence assignment that involved ``monitoring developments in the opposition and the underground,'' Mr. Pablo said.

The assignment was also ``closely coordinated'' with the National Intelligence and Security Authority and the Presidential Security Command.

Both organizations are controlled by Gen. Fabian Ver, the recently reinstated armed forces chief of staff who was also just acquitted by a special court of charges that he conspired to assassinate slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

Mr. Pablo said he was quite surprised to receive his present assignment, as he had had no prior experience in printing. He was appointed to the post, he said, ``immediately before the lifting of martial law'' -- at a time when elections became a subject of renewed interest for President Marcos.

Pablo added that he had not cut his links with the intelligence community: He pointed proudly to a plaque of appreciation presented to him in January 1983 by the Presidential Security Command for his ``invaluable services and continuing assistance'' to it. A large photograph next to the plaque shows him receiving the award from General Ver.

Pablo said he expected his office to print about 30 million ballots. There are 26 million voters, he explained. ``The other 4 million are a buffer stock, in case of ballot spoilage.'' But according to Namfrel, there are actually 24.8 million registered voters in the Philippines. The military

During the May 1984 National Assembly elections, says a member of a family that plays a prominent role in Marcos' party, a small group of military officers called at the headquarters of the local ruling party candidate.

``They said they came from General Ver and had come to see if everything was going all right,'' the person recalls. A phone call to the presidential palace confirmed their affiliation. The officers were told that no help was needed: The candidate was winning.

Military intervention has often been less subtle. Correspondents who covered the 1978 National Assembly elections recall seeing troops escorting what they believed to be faked ballots. Similar incidents were reported in the 1981 presidential election.

In theory, things could be different next February. The President has announced his plans to revamp the military command structure. But he is unlikely to be willing or able to dismantle the network of Marcos-Ver loyalists that he has built up over the last 13 years.

But younger officers have threatened to oppose any efforts to use the military to rig elections.

A group of reform-minded officers, for example, says it is organizing teach-ins to explain to local military commanders the need for the military to remain neutral during the coming elections.

The officers have also spoken of trying to mobilize 1,000 company commanders to resist any efforts to use them to fix the polls.

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