Philippines plans to insulate military from elections

The Philippines plans to stop using soldiers for election duties such as overseeing voting or transporting ballot boxes in a move to insulate the military from polls.

The move will also address recent allegations that top military officials helped President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to cheat in the May 2004 polls.

Mrs Macapagal recently declared a week-long state of emergency to quash an alleged military plot by officers, who were said to be disaffected by the armed forces’ failure to investigate and punish the senior officers who were suspected of involvement in the poll fraud.

Avelino Cruz, the defence secretary, said on Monday Mrs Macapagal had agreed that the military’s only role during future elections would be to provide back-up security to police in cases of serious armed threats.

He said the failed military plot against Mrs Macapagal had galvanised support for the defence department’s long-standing proposal to limit the military’s role in elections. “Suddenly, people are interested ... now, everybody agrees it’s urgent,” he said.

Military officers have attempted about a dozen coups since the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by a military-backed civilian uprising in 1986.

The Philippines constitution allows election authorities to mobilise the armed forces during polls but the soldiers’ role has grown over the years from maintaining security at voting stations to transporting election materials and ballot boxes, counting votes and even supervising election precincts.

The armed forces has completed its internal investigation into reports of military involvement in the poll fraud in May 2004 but it will be up to Mrs Macapagal whether to make the probe’s conclusions public, said Mr Cruz.

He said Monday’s move was part of the ongoing defence reforms that aimed to allow the armed forces to focus on the war against communist insurgents, which the government considers as the main security threat in the Philippines.

Apart from withdrawing from poll duties, the 120,000-strong armed forces is also recalling up to 2,000 soldiers deployed as security aides to high government officials, politicians and even prominent private citizens.

It also plans to bring back to active duty over 400 soldiers training as full-time athletes. “I just turned down a proposal to use soldiers for a massive tree planting programme. It’s the civilians’ job, not the soldiers,” said Mr Cruz.

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