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Belinda A. Aquino

Philippine President
Arroyo hangs tough

I spent the last three weeks in the Philippines attending two conferences, the second one of which was overtaken by the tumultuous "Gloriagate" political scandal, which has President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo virtually hanging by a thread. My immediate reaction was, "Will the political problems of the Philippines never end?" Politics Philippine-style has become very destructive.

At this writing, an impeachment complaint against Arroyo, filed by opposition lawmaker and former Ferdinand Marcos lawyer Oliver Lozano, gathered only 37 signatures, which rose to 40 upon amendment -- far short of the 79 signatures needed to transmit the charges to the Philippine Senate. Many doubt if it will get that far because the complaint is bound to get mired in procedural issues and lengthy debates in the House of Representatives.

The president's supporters will certainly question the admissibility of the evidence in the charge against her, which consists of purported recordings of her conversations with an elections commissioner obtained by wiretapping, an offense punishable under Philippine law.

Arroyo has made a public apology for calling the commissioner, admitting it was a "lapse in judgment." This was immediately interpreted by her opponents and much of the rambunctious Manila media as an attempt to connive and "rig" the 2004 presidential election in her favor.

Even if the complaint gets to the Senate, it will trigger another round of contentious procedural debates and political horsetrading. One recalls the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001, in which critical evidence against him was suppressed by his supporters in the Senate, leading to action in the streets that eventually forced Estrada to step down.

This is why Arroyo's lawyers have asked that the impeachment charges be quashed for lack of merit. But her opponents are not to be deterred. The original 37 signatories come from various opposition and "party list" groups, including some militant left-of-center legislators. Also joining the pro-impeachment camp are seven members of the Liberal Party, among them Rep. Benigno Aquino III, son of former President Cory Aquino, who had earlier called on Arroyo to make the "supreme sacrifice" of resigning to save the nation from further chaos.

Aquino's resignation call, however, got blunted by the statement made a day later by the more influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which refused to demand Arroyo's resignation. The bishops instead suggested filing an impeachment case against the president and creating a "Truth Commission." There is not much enthusiasm for the latter suggestion.

Another former Philippine president, Fidel V. Ramos, actually saved the day for Arroyo by personally calling on her in the presidential palace and pledging his support. Instead of resignation or impeachment, Ramos proposed changing the country's constitution to replace the existing presidential system with a parliamentary one, in which a prime minister would be chosen by a ruling political party, instead of a president elected by popular vote.

Ramos' suggestion blunted the anti-Arroyo frenzy temporarily, giving her more breathing room.

Shifting to a parliamentary system would cut short Arroyo's presidential term, which expires in 2010. She won a six-year term in the 2004 presidential elections.

If Ramos' plan were implemented, the current Congress would reconstitute itself into a "constituent assembly" to draft a new constitution. After ratification by the electorate, an election would be held under the terms of the new charter. The elected members of the parliament would choose the prime minister from the leadership of the ruling party or coalition of parties. This election could be held in 2007, which is an election year for congressional and local candidates under the existing system. Arroyo, if she is not impeached and convicted, could certainly run again, this time as a candidate for parliament from her district. If her political party, Lakas, won the majority of the seats in parliament, she could campaign to become prime minister. So her political future would not be completely bleak.

Of course, this proposed charter change, called "Cha-Cha" in the local lingo, is expected to raise another firestorm in this highly politicized country. For one thing, it is already seen as a cynical attempt to save Arroyo's neck, although, in fairness to her, she did support constitutional reform even before being elected president. For another, the incumbent senators probably will oppose the constitutional shift because it will disempower them. Unlike senators in the United States, Philippine senators are elected nationally, like the president. So Ramos and his "Cha-Cha" advocates will need to persuade them to be involved in the change to a parliamentary system via a constituent assembly.

Arroyo's admitted lapse in judgment was compounded by allegations of corruption against her son and brother- in-law, both members of Congress, who allegedly received gambling payoffs from "jueteng" (lottery) operators. Her husband, Mike, also is reported to have engaged in influence-peddling and other "wheeling and dealing" activities. The Arroyos belong to a wealthy family that has been prominent in Philippine business circles for generations. The indiscretions of presidential relatives have contributed to the downfalls of previous Philippine presidents.

Arroyo could have gone the way of ousted presidents Marcos and Estrada, who were both toppled in "people power" uprisings. In fact, that seemed likely on July 7 and again a week later, after a second anti-Arroyo rally at Makati City. But her culpability is not as clear-cut as her predecessors'. Besides, the people power route might have lost its appeal. The second rally produced a paltry crowd of 30,000, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who hounded Marcos and Estrada from office. I asked people what they thought of the rallies, and they indicated they were "tired already of people power." They would follow their responses with, "Nothing really happens anyway."

Arroyo seems to demonstrate both political naivete and political savvy at the same time. She easily could have designated someone on her staff to make a call to the elections commissioner; why she did it herself is not so much naivete, as some have suggested, but an inability to trust anybody. She is widely known to be a micromanager. Many say she should be spending more time reforming traditionally corrupt institutions like the Commission on Elections, where her troubles started in the first place.

But she also has shown political skill by mobilizing her grass-roots supporters nationwide at the height of the "Gloria Resign" hysteria. She has welcomed the impeachment initiative in what seems like a pre-emptive move. She has banished her husband to San Francisco to defuse the tension. Her son and brother-in-law are nowhere to be seen.

Powerful provincial governors, city and municipal mayors and other local officials have all turned out in droves to show her their support. Some have threatened, though not seriously, to "secede" from the republic if "imperial Manila" did not stop speaking for the whole country.

Arroyo might be wounded politically, but at this point she is far from finished.

Belinda A. Aquino is professor of political science and Asian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also is director of the Center for Philippine Studies. She is not related to former Philippine President Corazon Aquino.

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