The Philippines' lady-in-waiting

With President Estrada's impeachment trial heating up, Vice President Arroyo is the toast of the town.

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Gloria Macapagal Arroyo likes to take her fried eggs and sticky rice early.

Over a breakfast interview in her home that gets under way before 8 a.m., the Philippine vice president says if this country's leader - her former boss - is evicted from the presidential palace, her first order of business will be to start the day at a decent hour.

"We need to promote trade and a new work ethic, and one of the parodies of the work ethic of this administration is the late nights - and therefore, late starts on days," says Mrs. Arroyo, between bites of this country's national breakfast, which like the Philippines itself is a unique mix of East and West. "The problem is in the style of governance, and so we must address that first and foremost."

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Philippine President Joseph Estrada is now undergoing an impeachment trial in the Senate for charges that include bribery, graft, and betrayal of the public trust. And while the official charges include accusations that he manipulated the stock market and profited from illegal gambling operations, the court of public opinion is also trying Mr. Estrada's very fitness to rule - put into question by reports that the supposedly fast-living, nightlife-loving former movie actor has trouble getting up in the morning to care for affairs of state.

"I didn't attend his parties that lasted until 4 in the morning," says Mrs. Arroyo, who resigned in October from Estrada's Cabinet, where she served as secretary of social welfare. "He invited me sometimes, but I never had a chance to stay until the very end."

Some say it looked as though Arroyo - an economist who lent legitimacy to Estrada's government - would herself stay to the bitter end. Even her three grown children, she says, asked why she didn't resign sooner.

But she says she felt a little sad at having to abandon the president. "I didn't resign with great mirth," she says. In the Philippines' rather young democracy, modeled after the US system, candidates for president and vice president don't run on the same ticket - and she says she won more votes than Estrada, who is still popular with average Filipinos known here as the "masa."

"Those people voted for me in elections, and they still have great affection for me. The latest polls show I have much more support than [Estrada]," says Arroyo, neatly dressed in a mango-colored suit, as she reaches for a slice of fresh grapefruit, prompting a butler to briskly arrive with a sugar bowl and spoon. Her balcony in the La Vista suburb of Manila, which provides sweeping, green views of her husband's family hacienda, seems planets away from the slums of Manila and the poor, rural provinces that sprawl through the countryside.

Arroyo emphasizes that her family actually has much more humble beginnings. Although her father was former president of the Philippines, she says he was from a simple background and was known as "the poor boy from Lubao."

She's lived her life in politics; her father became a senator when she was 2. Yet she gleaned from her father a sense of duty, not a love of politicking.

"Actually, I don't like politics," says Arroyo who describes herself as a draftee to public service by President Corazon Aquino in 1991. "Being a technocrat suited me very well."

Some say it shows. If President Estrada is a little too big on persona and short on substance, supporters are concerned that she's a policy wonk.

"She wouldn't sway a mob, she'd put them to sleep with her lecture," says Alexander Magno, a University of the Philippines professor. "She's sort of a maverick, a lone ranger who makes decisions on her own, not part of a political faction. She's got great intellectual arrogance, which I love."

Arroyo scoffs at such suggestions that she may lack the popular appeal Erap, as Estrada is known, meaning "buddy" spelled backwards. Small but hardly diminutive, she seems to practice a certain economy of words as well as fiscal ideas, giving short answers and revealing less about herself than her Web site does. The valedictorian of her high school class, she studied at Georgetown University with President Clinton and later earned a doctorate in economics at the University of the Philippines.

Mr. Magno, also a columnist, recently dubbed her "Cory with a Ph.D.," a reference to Mrs. Aquino. Several people interviewed for this story seemed to reiterate an old cliche: She doesn't "suffer fools well." Some also say she's hardly the "Saint Cory" the country turned to when it overthrew former President Ferdinand Marcos.

"People don't look to Gloria as the savior who will fix everything, but from the business angle, she's an economist and at least she will understand what needs to be done," says Karina Constantino-David, who resigned from her posting in Estrada's Cabinet a year ago.

Arroyo says she is not trying to compete with Mrs. Aquino, who, along with the influential leader of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Sin, has spearheaded the anti-Estrada movement.

"Cory's role in history can never be equaled by anyone," says Arroyo. "Her legacy was to restore democracy, and [former president Fidel] Ramos' legacy was to restore economic competitiveness. I supposed it would be my role to fulfill that promise."

Some warn that Arroyo may have made a tactical error in allying herself with left-wing and Communist circles who want to overthrow Estrada. But most economic observers are looking instead to the possibility of a heavyweight to restore investor confidence. Even the International Monetary Fund has suspended all transfers of funds to Manila, pending the outcome of the trial.

Estrada says that he still enjoys wide popular support, and it is possible that he will survive the impeachment trial. But a recent poll found that 78 percent of Filipinos would like to see him testify. But a skilled actor could turn that into a stellar performance, and not the kind Arroyo says the Philippines needs. "We need a vision, we need to develop information technology and we need to implement the philosophy of free enterprise," she says. "We need to graduate from the politics of personality."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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