A President in the dock

Print edition : July 29, 2005

Serious charges against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her family members and Opposition-led public protests plunge the Philippines into yet another period of political uncertainty.

P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

An anti-government rally near Manila.-BULLIT MARQUEZ/AP

NEARLY two years after a half-serious "coup attempt", or rather a semi-comical "mutiny", by some marginal dissidents within the military establishment - the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) - President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's hold on power has faced a real political challenge. By early July, Gloria Arroyo found herself talking tough to convince herself and the nearly 80 million Filipinos that her position was intact.

The President was under attack from an admittedly disparate Opposition on two main counts. She had, it was alleged, rigged the presidential poll in 2004 to win a "re-election". Secondly, and no less significantly, her husband and close relatives were accused of having siphoned off a portion of the slush funds that resulted from alleged "underground lottery" transactions. The lottery-related charges were taken to the country's Senate for investigation.

High-power politics has a magic of its own, and Gloria Arroyo, never the most popular Filipino leader ever, has sought to portray the attacks as attempts by some opponents to tarnish the mystique of her "Strong Republic" agenda. She often prided herself on having got the President's post in the first place in 2001 by riding the crest of a "people power" campaign. The manner of her accession to the post, while being controversial by the gold standard of democracy, was judicially validated under the relevant constitutional procedures. The United States, a one-time master of the Philippines and its mentor-ally, saw nothing amiss with the way Gloria Arroyo succeeded an elected President, Joseph Estrada, at that time. She assumed the post after a mass street protest against Estrada, which surely was no substitute for a truly democratic mandate.

Doubts among sections of the people over the propriety of her "power-grab" in 2001 were among the several reasons that prompted her to announce on December 30, 2002, that she would not, after all, stand for "re-election" in the 2004 presidential poll. The act of political "self-denial" boosted Gloria Arroyo's stature, though she never attained the popularity ratings that former President Corazon Aquino secured in her early years in office. Corazon Aquino was the people's unequivocal choice in the election that followed the downfall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 in the luminous heat of the first and authentic "people power" movement in the Philippines.

As a "sacrificing" Gloria Arroyo began, in late 2002 and early 2003, to address "anti-poverty" issues of economic reform under her "Strong Republic" agenda, and sought to reinforce her political base in the process, some 300 officers and personnel of the AFP staged a "coup-mutiny". This was easily quelled by the authorities within hours after it began on July 27, 2003. The "mutineers", who occupied the Oakwood Premier Suites, a hotel-apartment complex in Metro Manila's Makati district, and used explosives to deter a counter-attack, soon found themselves surrounded by loyal military personnel.

Traditionally, the Filipino military establishment, reckoned to be among the less powerful national defence forces in the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), plays a somewhat visible role on the domestic political stage. The Roman Catholic Church too plays an influential role in the public domain, including the political sector, but it does not evoke the kind of negative responses from the people that the AFP's presence, at the frontlines of politics or behind the scenes, generates at times.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo being sworn in President by Chief Justice Hilario Davide on January 20, 2001, following the resignation of Joseph Estrada. Looking on are her husband Jose Miguel Tuason Arroyo and daughter Luli, and Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila at that time.-BULLIT MARQUEZ/AP

WITH the 2003 "mutiny" overcome with little difficulty, Gloria Arroyo cited it among the reasons for announcing, on October 4 of the same year, that she would stand for "re-election" in 2004. Describing the "mutiny" as a "Machiavellian scheme", which (she seemed to imply) was partially orchestrated by her opponents, she said that "guns and gold, drugs and dregs" could be seen behind the destabilisation plot. This gradually impelled her to give up her "yearnings for personal quiet and release from presidential strain and anxiety" and throw the hat in the electoral ring.

If, by early July, Gloria Arroyo came under political siege, despite a clear win in the 2004 presidential election, the reason had much to do with the dramatic reversal of her tactical or genuine move to shun that poll itself.

For her opponents, political ammunition came in the form of a taped telephonic conversation between her (as she felt compelled to admit on June 27) and an election official during the count-down to the announcement of the results that favoured her. Her contention, in a nationally televised address on June 27, was that the conversation took place when the result was already a foregone conclusion (in view of the projections by pollsters and poll officials).

Gloria Arroyo apologised to Filipinos for having called up and talked to a poll official when the result was yet to be announced. She maintained that her intervention was a "lapse in judgment" which would not, however, justify the demand by the Opposition for her resignation. At the same time, she acknowledged that the episode had "shaken the faith" of the people in her and that she would, therefore, redouble her efforts to regain their "trust" while continuing as President.

Regional observers were quick to argue that political tactics rather than any high principle motivated her to admit a poll-related error of judgment. This was akin to the flip-flop over her participation in the last presidential poll itself. The view was that she might want to become a legal "party" to the parallel issue whether it was lawful, in the first place, to tape her conversation with the poll official. The issue of illegal wire-tapping might, to some extent, help cloud the argument of those who brought the tape to the public domain, that she sought to influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential poll.

Her apology regarding the allegation brought her under increasing pressure to take the "right" follow-up course of resignation. In fact, her apparent sense of political vulnerability on other issues too did not diminish. She even indicated that she would not like her husband to make his presence felt in a manner that could be seen as "influence-peddling" and might only add to her political challenges at home. While this might have had something to do with the allegations against him on the lottery-related issue, the military's attitude towards her administration was the dominant theme on the eve of and during the national day celebrations on June 12.

As rumours of a potential coup attempt fouled the political atmosphere on the eve of this year's national day celebrations, the 107th anniversary, AFP chief General Efren Abu asserted that the suspicion of a plot "is not that serious" and that the armed forces, whose "chain of command is very much intact", was "very confident" of meeting any "destabilisation" attempt. This was based on the calculation that the suspected "destabilisers" from within the AFP ranks were backed only by three retired Generals.

In Manila, a protester displays a compact disc containing taped conversations of Arroyo with an election official.-AARON FAVILA/AP

The national day, which was preceded by a series of Opposition rallies against the President, passed off peacefully in the context of "a full security alert". Emboldened, Gloria Arroyo declared that "no one will deter" her in the "mission" that she had launched for the benefit of the country's poor. In a turn of the phrase, she said: "I have felt the political heat. But I am still in the kitchen... to turn this economy around." On a different plane, she accused her opponents of living in "a land of make-believe" - an allusion to the close links between the Opposition camp and the movie world.

THREE critical aspects of Gloria Arroyo's management of her own sense of political crisis illustrated the drift in the country's politics. First, all the issues in focus - the suspected moves by the dissidents in the military forces, the allegation of electoral fraud by the President herself and the charges of lottery kickbacks - were sought to be addressed by the authorities mainly from the standpoint of sustaining Gloria Arroyo in office and not so much from a national angle.

For the Opposition, in this power-game, the recent death of the well-regarded former Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin signified the loss of a potential rallying force against the President. Although the Cardinal's potential conscience-vote on Gloria Arroyo's rule was not known at the time of his death, the popular Church leader had played critical roles that helped propel the previous "people power" campaigns.

As Mely Caballero-Anthony pointed out in an overview of ASEAN, "democratic consolidation" in the Philippines had become "an uphill battle" because of the country's "troubled political leaderships and (also) unending list of security challenges".

Another glaring aspect of the political crisis, at the time of going to press, was the shadow cast by the President's survival moves on the efforts to address the deep-seated issues - not just poverty but also the "tragedy" of the communist movement and the "alienation" of the Muslim minority in the Philippines.

Rizal G. Buendia, who closely studied Manila's plans to address the grievances of Muslims and the related armed conflict as well as the suspected international terrorist links of Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, said "the preponderance of state power" and the "human rights violations" on all sides in such an ambience had not helped stabilise and sustain the relevant "peace process". As for the social inequities, which Filipino communists had traditionally shone the spotlight on, the latest crisis-management exercises in Manila's political parlours did little or nothing to advance the anti-poverty agenda.

The last but not the least missing dimension of the crisis, by June end, was the absence of an explicit U.S. view on Gloria Arroyo's travails. Almost a year ago she had "disappointed" the U.S. by ordering Filipino troops out of Iraq against the wishes of President George W. Bush.

The 50-odd Filipino soldiers were on a "non-combat humanitarian mission". For Washington, though, their withdrawal, ordered so as to secure the release of a Philippine national who was then being held hostage by an anti-U.S. Arab group, signified a certain disdain for "American interests" and a preference for Manila's own good.

The Philippines is known, at the government level, for its swings from a state of intense alliance with the U.S. to that of estrangement from it. With Manila's withdrawal of its troops from Iraq having occurred within months of Bush's nomination of the Philippines as "a major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] ally", it was not surprising that the U.S. had not openly supported Gloria Arroyo by early July.

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