MANILA, Philippines - Will there be a new face at the helm of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) by March or will President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stick it out with current military chief Gen. Victor Ibrado?
Ibrado is due to retire on March 10, the day before the election appointments ban takes effect. The president is barred from making new appointments two months before the elections and until the end of her term.
But pivotal to the 2010 elections is the president’s next move with regard to the leadership of the military. Ensuring security during elections, which includes monitoring the gun ban, falls partly on the shoulders of the AFP.
The AFP and the Philippine National Police will also play key roles in choosing the next president if there will be failure of elections in May 2010, according to Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
The 2010 polls will also show if the AFP has learned its lessons following the "Hello Garci" election fraud scandal in the 2004 presidential race.
Former military chief Sen. Rodolfo Biazon says he would prefer that Ibrado stay in his post just to erase any doubt of partisanship of the military.
“I’m pushing for the extension of his term,” he said in a telephone interview with abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. has said that under the Arroyo administration, term extension has been a common practice.
Out of the 10 military chiefs she has appointed in 9 years, Arroyo has extended the term of four – Esperon, Roy Cimatu, Efren Abu and Benjamin Defensor.
Rumors cropped up last year, however, that Ibrado would be dislodged from his post by elite members of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1978, which includes Army commander Lt. Gen. Delfin Bangit. The ouster was called "Oplan August Moon."
If the alleged operation succeeds, Bangit will purportedly be installed as AFP chief. The AFP has repeatedly denied that such a plan exists.
With or without such an "operation," however, reports of Bangit as Arroyo’s prime pick to replace Ibrado have persisted. His name was floated as the next AFP chief as early as May 2009 when Gen. Alexander Yano retired.
Bangit was Arroyo’s senior military aide when she was vice president. He later served as chief of the Presidential Security Group.
If Arroyo lets go of Ibrado and opts to appoint somebody in an acting capacity, observers say that Bangit is a shoo-in, although Brawner says that there are other contenders, such as AFP deputy chief of staff Lt. Gen Rodrigo Maclang and Vice Admiral Leonardo Calderon Jr.
Ibrado’s replacement will stay only until after the elections. The next president can renew his appointment and make it permanent, or he may choose a new AFP chief of staff.
As of now, the public is waiting for Arroyo’s decision. She may make an announcement on changes in the AFP leadership on March 1 during the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) graduation.
AFP and Ampatuans
All eyes are now on the military after the Commission on Elections said it plans to resurrect the former’s expanded role in elections. Upon the candidates’ requests, soldiers may be allowed to serve as their security escorts, just like in 2004.
The suggestion came just as security forces were reeling from allegations that policemen and Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) were used by the Ampatuan warlords to execute the election-related massacre last November 23.
No less than Ibrado admitted that some of the firearms seized from the Ampatuans belonged to the AFP, though he put the initial number of guns at a miniscule 32.
The killings were allegedly carried out to stop the Ampatuans' rival for the Maguindanao gubernatorial post, Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, from filing his certificate of candidacy.
Ghosts of 2004
In 2005, some military generals were implicated in the alleged cheating in Mindanao after they were mentioned in the taped conversations between election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and a woman believed to be President Arroyo. The conversations took place during the 2004 polls.
Then deputy chief of staff for operations Brig. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon was one of those mentioned. But he was absolved by the military board and was later promoted as chief of staff.
One of the generals who testified in a Senate hearing that the military had a hand in the election fraud in Maguindanao, Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, was removed from his post.