Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, unable to reverse the country’s economic slide and beset by corruption allegations against her family, is facing mounting opposition among groups that once backed her.
Less than a year after Arroyo won her first full term as president, some leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have become openly critical of her, and some active and retired military officers have quietly begun talking of her ouster.
A Senate committee is scheduled to begin hearings early next week on allegations that Arroyo’s husband, son and brother-in-law unlawfully received millions of dollars in gambling proceeds from jueteng, a popular but illegal game.
Arroyo denies accepting any illegal money and has ordered a federal investigation into the allegations against her relatives, which surfaced in Philippine newspapers last week.
“I can assure you, I am one president that did not receive any payola,” she told a gathering of bishops Monday. The president’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, has left the country, which some critics call a sign of his guilt.
The corruption allegations are similar to charges that led to the ouster of President Joseph Estrada and brought Arroyo to power in 2001.
Estrada, who was accused of taking more than $70 million in jueteng payoffs, was forced from office by massive street protests and the loss of support from military leaders. Arroyo, vice president at the time, was sworn in as president in a dramatic scene before tens of thousands of demonstrators as top generals and Cardinal Jaime Sin stood by.
Estrada, who contends that he never gave up the presidency, was arrested soon after his ouster and is being held at a military camp. His trial has been dragging on for years.
Despite Arroyo’s election victory last spring over a popular actor, Fernando Poe Jr., opposition to her presidency has been building in recent months. Now she faces the danger that the same kind of military-backed popular uprising that brought her to power could be used against her.
Rex Robles, a retired Philippine navy commodore and former intelligence officer, warned recently that a group of active and retired military officers had begun making plans to oust her.
“The military rebels grow in number and are more organized,” said Robles, who was a spokesman for rebel officers who initiated the ouster of President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986. “The objective of the rebels is to change the present government, which they perceive to be corrupt.”
Arroyo received strong support from the Catholic Church when she took over from Estrada. After the death of Pope John Paul II last month, she asserted that the late pontiff personally expressed support for her replacing Estrada before he left office.
But recent criticism from some bishops demonstrates how much support she has lost.
“When the government officials have become the curse instead of a blessing to the people, then the government officials, not the people, become the enemies of the country,” Archbishop Oscar Cruz, a former president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said last month.
Arroyo’s problems are also rooted in the country’s foundering economy.
Once one of the strongest in Southeast Asia, the Philippine economy has been declining for decades.
Poverty is widespread, and the unemployment rate is in double digits. Millions of workers leave the country every year to find jobs overseas. Graft is common, siphoning off public funds that might have helped the poor.
The national debt is rising and so is inflation, which is running at 8.5% this year. The central government is paying as much as 40% of its revenue in interest on the funds it has borrowed. This week, Arroyo was compelled to raise taxes to offset the rising debt, a move that could prove highly unpopular.
Corruption and unpredictable court decisions have kept away some foreign investors who might have brought jobs to the Philippines.
The country’s stagnation is exemplified by a gleaming new international terminal at Manila’s airport. Construction was virtually complete two years ago, but amid allegations of bribery and extortion, it never opened. Arroyo’s government, with the backing of the Supreme Court, seized the terminal last year from the German company that built it and has yet to pay a peso in compensation.
The Philippines’ lawless atmosphere has helped make it the most murderous country for journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 2000, 18 Philippine journalists have been slain for their work, including some vocal critics of government corruption.
In a March opinion survey by Social Weather Station, an independent polling agency based in Manila, 48% of the Filipinos questioned considered themselves to be living in poverty. More than 70% worried about losing their jobs.
One-third of the families surveyed said they lacked enough to eat, according to a separate poll by Pulse Asia, another Manila-based firm.
Asked what course of action a poor person who has lost hope was likely to take, 26% of the respondents said find a job overseas, 25% said pray, 21% said steal and 12% said join a group to overthrow the government.
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A hopeful start
* Education: Arroyo studied for two years at Georgetown University in Washington, where she was a classmate of Bill Clinton. She graduated from Assumption College in Manila, received a master’s degree from Ateneo de Manila University and a doctorate in economics from the University of the Philippines.
* Career: She was appointed undersecretary of trade and industry by President Corazon Aquino in 1986. She was elected to the Senate in 1992 and reelected in 1995. She was elected vice president in 1998 and sworn in as president in 2001 after the ouster of President Joseph Estrada. She won the 2004 presidential vote.
* Family: She is married to Jose Miguel Arroyo, with whom she has three children. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal, served as president from 1961 to 1965.
Los Angeles Times