Gloria in Extremis

7 minute read
Peter Ritter/Manila

Less than a week after a massive explosion in a central Manila mall killed 11 people and injured more than 100, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went shopping. A delivery truck, its front end sheared off by the blast, still sat outside. Inside, a primly dressed Arroyo bought shoes, then toured the complex with a group of reporters. “See?” she told the crowd. “It’s business as usual.”

Nothing is usual in the Philippines these days. On the face of things, the country is doing well enough. After decades of uneven growth, the economy finally seems on the mend. Meanwhile, the festering insurgencies in the country’s south, which have claimed more than 160,000 lives since the 1970s, have entered an uneasy lull. In recent weeks, however, the Arroyo administration has been beset by fresh allegations of corruption, giving the impression of a government under siege. Last week, former President Fidel Ramos, a widely respected figure, warned Arroyo that she was losing public trust: “I have told her, reform yourself before you talk about reforming other people and institutions.”

In a recent speech, Arroyo advised Filipinos not to be swayed by “half-truths and partisan intrigues.” Her standing, however, has been hurt: according to the independent pollster Social Weather Stations, Arroyo’s approval rating has dipped to 34%. Even an apparent industrial accident is redounding unfavorably on her. Although police initially announced that they had found traces of a compound used in military-grade explosives at the mall-blast site, they later attributed the explosion to a gas leak. But as the last bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage, an opposition senator — himself on trial for leading an attempted coup against Arroyo in 2003 — accused members of her Cabinet of orchestrating the blast in order to distract attention from a scandal allegedly involving bags of cash handed out at the presidential palace to lawmakers.

Arroyo isn’t just facing attack from sworn political enemies. Three prominent Catholic bishops have joined the chorus calling for her resignation, while the head of the country’s influential Bishops’ Conference charged her administration with “moral bankruptcy.” Whisperings of an impending palace coup remain rampant among Manila’s political observers. “I think the military will do a Thailand,” says Harry Roque, an international-law professor at the University of the Philippines and a vocal Arroyo critic.

That scenario wouldn’t be without precedent. Arroyo has already survived two coup attempts during her six years in office. She herself came to power after her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was ousted in a military-backed protest movement dubbed People Power II after the nonviolent revolution that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. In September, the country’s anticorruption court convicted Estrada of plundering more than $15 million while in office and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Yet on Oct. 25, Arroyo granted Estrada a pardon on the grounds that he had already served more than six years under house arrest. Arroyo painted the pardon as a bid for national reconciliation. But her critics impute a more cynical motive: Estrada, who remains wildly popular among the masses, has been a virulent opponent of her administration; pardoning him may mute that criticism.

Arroyo was supposed to be a refreshing change from Estrada, a former movie actor. A U.S.-educated economist, and the daughter of a former Philippine President, Arroyo presented the image of a competent, if comparatively uncharismatic, technocrat. Indeed, the Philippines has made considerable economic strides under her stewardship, posting 7.5% GDP growth last quarter — the highest in 20 years — and paying down a massive government deficit. Arroyo’s government has attracted millions of dollars in foreign investment — no small beer for a country where political instability and a crushing debt load have often made investors wary. Arroyo has also made progress in tamping down the long-running insurgencies in the south. Two weeks ago, she announced that the government was close to signing a final peace agreement with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Ricardo Saludo, Arroyo’s Cabinet Secretary, says that stability and economic growth should guarantee her tenure: “As far as she’s concerned, she will stay until 2010. Investors don’t want to see a constitutionally elected President removed from office. And we want to give them that confidence.”

Yet the decision to stay or go may not be Arroyo’s. Almost since she came to power, her administration has been buffeted by allegations of corruption every bit as audacious as Estrada’s. During the 2004 election, Arroyo was recorded talking on the phone to Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano. Her political enemies charged that the oddly oblique conversation concerned the massaging of voting returns — a charge Arroyo has denied. The resulting impeachment attempt in the country’s lower house of Congress was blocked by Arroyo’s political allies. Her courting of foreign investment has also drawn fire. In early October, Arroyo canceled a $329 million contract with Chinese company ZTE to build a government broadband network after a businessman who had submitted a rival bid alleged that the deal involved millions of dollars in kickbacks for members of Arroyo’s administration. Election Commissioner Benjamin Abalos resigned after the Cabinet Secretary in charge of infrastructure development testified that Abalos had offered him a $4.4 million bribe to approve the project. (Abalos has denied any wrongdoing.)

That controversy might have blown over — allegations of patronage politics are nothing new in a country that often seems still to be feeling the long hangover from Marcos’ kleptocracy — if not for a concurrent scandal allegedly involving payouts to lawmakers. On Oct. 15, a provincial governor — and former parish priest — said that he and other lawmakers had been handed paper bags full of cash during an Oct. 11 breakfast meeting at the presidential palace. The administration has denied the money came from Arroyo. Two weeks after the alleged handouts, the country’s League of Provinces, a lobbying group of governors, admitted giving the cash for what they described as development initiatives. Arroyo’s critics, however, claim the money was intended to win support among lawmakers for an intentionally defanged impeachment complaint that would inoculate Arroyo against a more serious proceeding. (Under the constitution, Congress can only attempt to impeach the President once a year). The allegations underscore just how toxic the political atmosphere has become: Arroyo’s administration is being accused of bribing lawmakers to support her own impeachment. “What galls the public was that it was done so flagrantly,” says political analyst and newspaper columnist Manuel L. Quezon III, referring to the bags of cash. “In the Philippines, everyone expects everyone else to be a crook. What Filipinos cannot stand is a brazen crook.”

Arroyo’s woes may stem in part from the typical sound and fury of Filipino politics — a blood sport traditionally contested among entrenched dynasties. Yet the accretion of scandal also appears to be eroding support for the President among some in the business community, one of her power bases. “We’re really distressed about the way she lurches from one fiasco to another,” says Alberto Lim, director of the Makati Business Club, an influential lobbying group that has previously called for Arroyo’s resignation.

Even if the allegations against her administration do stand up, Quezon says that apathy may allow Arroyo to stagger on to the end of her term — while Filipinos continue to cynically believe the worst of their politicians. That would also be business as usual.

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