People-powered out in the Philippines?

President Arroyo could hang on due to fatigue with military overthrows and weak opponents.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Francisco Sionil José hardly considers himself a fan of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but he believes it's time to get tough, really tough, with young military officers who persist in thinking the overthrow of the government will resolve the country's problems.

"Whenever there's a coup attempt by the military, they punish them by telling them all to do push-ups," says Mr. José, author of more than 20 books on such issues as poverty and revolution in the Philippines. "You don't do that. You line them up and shoot them."

While the Army builds maximum-security cells for the military rebels who sought to take power last month on the 20th anniversary of the People Power Revolt, Ms. Arroyo vows revenge.

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"I can't spend all my time chasing the bully around the schoolyard," she says in an interview with a sympathetic newspaper, the Philippine Star. She'll keep after "underground conspiracies," she promises, "until these are completely mopped up and wiped out."

Such strong words, though, belie the opposition of an extraordinary range of enemies, many of whom doubt if she can survive politically or, if she does, whether she can govern effectively. Rich or poor, people here agree the country suffers from deep social and economic inequities that aren't helped by political instability.

"The problems of this country are so profound, there's a prolonged impasse," says Sheila Coronel, director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, responsible for a series of ground-breaking studies detailing the depths of political corruption, nepotism, and incompetence at all levels. "I don't see any solution any time soon."

Ms. Coronel avoids overtly taking sides, but investigators have asked for search warrants to look through the center's records. It's just the latest attempt at stifling criticism that government officials see as inciting sedition.

Critics worry about martial law echoes

While Arroyo has lifted the "state of emergency" that she declared after the failed coup, critics fear she may try to revert to something approaching the state of martial law under which Ferdinand Marcos ruled for nearly half his 21 years in power.

The government has arrested an old-time leftist congressman, Crispin Beltran, and wants to bring charges of rebellion against five other congressmen who have avoided arrest by remaining in the sanctuary of the Congress complex.

"The government is very insecure because of continued threats," says Coronel. "It's flailing about, trying to survive." The military, she says, "is very divided" while the opposition "desperately wants her out."

Among the most fiercely outspoken is Corazon Aquino, the woman who took over after Mr. Marcos's downfall. Ms. Aquino is ostensibly protesting what she sees as vote-buying and corruption by Arroyo, but her position puts her in de facto alliance with Marcos' daughter, Imee, a member of the Philippine Congress, who has twitted Arroyo for failing to show the same toughness as her father.

In an atmosphere of plot and counterplot, however, Aquino, like Arroyo, is also perceived as operating from her own self-interest.

Widely regarded as ineffective in her six years as president, Aquino is one of the owners of Hacienda Luisita, an enormous family holding north of Manila that the government wants to break up in the name of land reform. Although Aquino soon abandoned her own promises to fight for land reform as president, her defenders deny she has any real desire to cling to Luisita, the scene of bloody demonstrations in recent years.

In what may be the greatest twist in the strange political drama, the leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines, José Maria Sison, who fled into exile 20 years ago, is reportedly considering an alliance with right-wing extremists. Mr. Sison, who has a tenuous hold over an 8,000-strong rebel force, says that he supports a popular revolt and withdrawal by the military of its support for Arroyo. That view strangely echoes the claims of some officers to have "withdrawn support" for Arroyo but not to have rebelled against her.

Amid all such claims and counterclaims, there's a strong tendency here to disparage all sides. "It's just a question of one elite against another," says Rex Robles, a retired Navy officer once known as a firebrand leader of a movement to reform the armed forces. "The elite have such a grip on society that other groups are not successful."

An Army distracted by plotting?

Mr. Robles worries, as do many others, about the impact of all the plotting on attempts to go after Islamic revolt in the southern Philippines as well as the New People's Army.

"The military is not doing well," he says. "They are not focused on problems."

In fact, with somewhat more than 100,000 troops in a country of 85 million, the armed forces are incredibly weak and ill-equipped. On any given day, the Army is able to field at most three combat-ready battalions - several thousand troops - while Arroyo clings to power by shifting top commanders, rewarding the faithful with perks and titles.

"We don't need a big army," says José, the author. "We need a real professional army." As for Arroyo, he predicts, "she will last because all the important alternatives to her are awful."

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