MANILA, June 7, 2005 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - In an effort to head off a media bombshell over taped conversations purporting to show that President Arroyo fixed the results of last year’s presidential election, Malacañang went on a preemptive strike yesterday, vowing to unmask those behind the alleged destabilization plot.

Mrs. Arroyo yesterday personally denied that she cheated in the polls and said she would not step down as a duly elected official.

"There are segments of the opposition who want to undermine my ability to govern and even want to destroy me and I will not let them. I will concentrate on my governance," Mrs. Arroyo said at a press briefing.

"Nobody is indispensable but I am the duly constituted elected president and it is my duty to serve," she said.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye released a pair of audiotapes to the media yesterday as part of Malacañang’s effort to counter expected opposition claims that she cheated in last year’s election.

The opposition was widely reported to be readying the release of the tape, said to feature an alleged conversation between Mrs. Arroyo and an election official in which she appeared to press for a million-vote margin over action film star Fernando Poe Jr.

A group calling itself The Patriots was to release the tape in a press conference yesterday at the Sulo Hotel in Quezon City but its presenter failed to show up.

Their spokesman, who identified himself only as "MG" Rebueno to avoid reprisal, said the presenter feared a possible government crackdown.

"We have no control over our guest," Rebueno said. He declined to identify the tape’s presenter.

At Malacañang, Bunye called a news conference and played two tapes for reporters, one which he claimed was a wiretapped cell phone call between Mrs. Arroyo and an election official known only as "Gary," and the other that he claimed used snippets of the first call spliced together with the voice of a fake Commission on Elections (Comelec) official.

"We want to express our outrage that the phone of the President has been tapped," Bunye said. "The President was illegally wiretapped, and this wiretapped conversation was spliced. It was the President’s voice, but the voice on the other line was not a commissioner."

He said the "smoking gun" evidence of criminal activity was being turned over to the National Bureau of Investigation and added that the President has had to change her cell phone number several times during her administration to avoid having her calls intercepted.

Bunye earlier said the opposition was planning to claim the tape was provided by the US government.

The US Embassy has denied the tape came from them.

"The US Embassy sometime ago heard about that. It did not come from the US government and it is not something we have any role in," said Ronald Post, chief of the embassy’s public affairs department.

"We’re not even sure if that exists. Certainly it’s not something that the United States likes to support. We want the Philippines to be a stable country and to prosper," Post said.

Reporters obtained copies of the tape, which contained 12 alleged conversations between Mrs. Arroyo and an unidentified election official from May 31 to June 29, 2004.

It also allegedly included recorded conversations between Mrs. Arroyo’s husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, and the supposed election official on June 2 and June 8 of that year.

Conversation with ‘Gary’

One conversation between Mrs. Arroyo and "Gary" that supposedly took place on June 29 at around 9:43 a.m. went as follows:

Arroyo: Hello.

Gary: Hello, ma’am, good morning uli.

Arroyo: Oo, oo.

Gary: Okay, ma’am, sa quick count naming mas mataas ho siya pero mag-compensate ho sa Lanao ‘yon.

Arroyo: So I will still lead by one million?

Gary: More or less it’s that advantage, ma’am. Parang ganun din ang lalabas.

Arroyo: It could not be less than one million.

Gary: Oo, pipilitin ho natin ‘yan. Pero as of the other day, it’s 982.

Arroyo: Kaya nga, eh.

Gary: Then if we can get more in Lanao…

Arroyo: Hindi pa ba tapos...?

Gary: Hindi pa ho, meron pang kina-canvass sa seven municipalities.

Arroyo: Ah, okay, oo.

Gary: Sige, po.

Arroyo: Okay. Okay.

The latest controversy erupted as Mrs. Arroyo was giving a series of media interviews amid coup rumors and plunging popularity in opinion polls.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Efren Abu warned last Sunday that government troops remained loyal to the government and would crush any effort to agitate soldiers and the public into joining covert plots to oust Mrs. Arroyo.

He said the military was concerned over intelligence reports that unidentified groups were continuing to undermine the government to discredit Mrs. Arroyo’s rule and to agitate troops and the public into withdrawing support from her administration.

"I have great confidence in General Abu and the military, as I have great confidence in the cool heads of our citizens to maintain and protect the democracy that they have worked so hard to defend," Mrs. Arroyo said yesterday.

Senate President Franklin Drilon and members of the Liberal Party went to Malacañang yesterday in a similar show of support for Mrs. Arroyo and "our democracy" after reading newspaper reports about destabilization plots.

"We believe that this is the time when we rally around the Constitution, our duly-elected president," Drilon said. "We believe it is necessary that we show our support even if there is no truth to what was being stated in the media."

"This support, in a time when many want to destabilize the government, warms my heart," Mrs. Arroyo responded.

Rumors of a possible coup spread through the nation more than a month ago after retired general Fortunato Abat, who served as defense secretary under former President Fidel Ramos, called for a civilian-military junta to replace Mrs. Arroyo and Congress because of "a crisis in leadership."

Ramos immediately distanced himself from Abat, who assured the public that any proposed change in the leadership would be done through peaceful means.

The Arroyo administration and the opposition have been struggling to win over public opinion ever since Mrs. Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was ousted by a military-backed popular uprising in 2001 over massive corruption charges.

The bickering escalated following Mrs. Arroyo’s narrow victory in last year’s election.

The purported audiotape comes on the heels of allegations of bribery against Mrs. Arroyo’s son that have helped plunge the President’s popularity ratings to a record low.

Last week a self-confessed jueteng operator, Wilfredo Mayor, told a Senate inquiry that Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo and several other officials regularly took bribes from him.

Mrs. Arroyo said the bribery accusations are part of a plot by the opposition, which is still loyal to Estrada, to undermine her presidency and spark another popular uprising to topple her.

Meanwhile, the military suspects that the bribery allegations and the purported audiotape might be connected.

"The confluence of events will tell us that, well, there might be links," said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Jose Angel Honrado, adding that there have been attempts to recruit soldiers into joining a rebellion.

Meanwhile, Comelec chief Benjamin Abalos said those who are in possession of the audiotape should file the appropriate charges instead of going to the press.

"If they have concrete evidence, they should come to us so we can analyze if it’s true," he said.

Abalos declined to comment on the alleged taped conversation. "It’s something that is based on conjecture so it would be a waste of time to comment on it. The country has enough problems at this time." — With Perseus Echeminada, Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Pia Lee-Brago, Jess Diaz, Mayen Jaymalin, Marvin Sy, AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved