Reformist military officers say the Philippine armed forces will be used to fix the Feb. 7 election for President Ferdinand Marcos, whether or not Chief of Staff Fabian Ver resigns before polling day. Asked whether the military will be used in electoral fraud, a senior member of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement answered, ``I don't think there is any doubt about it.'' General Ver will play a ``major role'' in the fraud, the officer said. He added that Ver seemed to be trying to tone down the reform movement's own plans to ensure clean elections.
Ver, for his part, has frequently denied that he would become involved in election rigging. In a recent meeting with senior officers, for example, he repeated his commitment to clean and honest elections and said he had no intention of staining his career with fraudulent elections.
Last week, President Marcos indicated that he might retire Ver before the elections. For many here, the general -- the President's kinsman, chief security officer, and close confidant -- has come to symbolize the malaise of the armed forces under Mr. Marcos. On Tuesday, however, the President reportedly backtracked somewhat from this position, saying it was hard to find a replacement for Ver.
The reformist officer said that Ver's retirement at this late juncture would be at best ``cosmetic.'' This view is shared by observers with sharply different viewpoints. When asked what difference Ver's retirement would have, one Cabinet minister replied, ``Nothing, but it will appease your friends in Washington.''
[President Reagan Friday asked Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to lead an official delegation to the Philippines to observe the Feb. 7 election.]
Citing the threat of growing communist insurgency, the United States has been urging Marcos to remove Ver and other senior officers and reform the armed forces. Marcos and Ver are invoking the same threat to justify military operations during the elections.
The Philippine government originally announced that troops would be confined to barracks on polling day. But Marcos said recently that he would request permission from the Commission on Elections to allow the military to operate during the polls in areas threatened by communist guerrillas of the New People's Army. Marcos was quoted in the Manila press as saying that the communist army was targeting strongholds of his party, the Movement for a New Society.
The Communist Party of the Philippines has called for a boycott of the polls. Marcos, however, has described this as a ploy, and he claims that the communists are in fact working with the opposition.
The reformist officer said that the military would probably be used mostly to intimidate the electorate and limit turnout in areas where the opposition is strong.
``If you fire off a few rounds every hour or so,'' the officer said, ``you create an atmosphere of fear.'' Few people will come out and vote. ``If they do vote, you just snatch the ballots.'' This, he said, would be done by the government's paramilitary force or by armed men posing as communist guerrillas.
Meanwhile, the military reform movement's own plans for the elections are running into snags, the officer said. As part of its effort to encourage the armed forces to remain neutral in this election, the movement announced a series of prayer rallies to be held in military camps throughout the country.
On the eve of the first rally, two senior members of the movement were reportedly interviewed for two hours by about 20 military intelligence officers. Soon afterwards, the same two officers were unexpectedly called to see Ver. One of the officers present during the meeting says that Ver expressed his commitment to fair elections and urged the officers to drop their plan and join his own efforts in this direction. The officers declined to abandon their own program but agreed to work in coordination with the armed forces' official plan. Privately, they express fears that their activities will be diluted.
The movement plans other activities, however. Before election day, the reform group member says, members will visit ``particularly nasty barangay captains [district chiefs]'' who reportedly used violence or coercion in the last elections.
``Our members will go and offer their assistance,'' the spokesman said.``They will say they heard there was trouble with armed men in the area during the last election, and now they want to help. They'll let him know they are most interested in what he's doing.''
On election day, the movement says members will be ``moving around'' and will report signs of fraud or intimidation.
The movement, which surfaced last year, claims 400 to 500 members in the Manila area and a similar number in the provinces. The reformists were originally close to Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Assistant Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos -- both political rivals of Ver.
Movement leaders refuse to rule out military intervention before the election. The most likely form this would take, one officer says, would be a grab for power by generals close to the regime if Marcos suddenly becomes incapacitated. If the campaign seemed to be going badly for the President, the officer continued, the military might also intervene.
``I'm not underestimating General Ver at all,'' the officer said. ``He builds up tension by talking of the [communist] threat. This goes along with my fears that he may be planning something else.''
Reformists feel they would be among the first targets of a crackdown. This has led them to step up their own military training, ``to keep alert and in shape,'' the officer said. These activities include ``night exercises with our platoons, and [practice-]firing from rooftops.''
``We want to send a message: don't feel we'll be easy pickings,'' he said.