Arroyo set to keep power in Philippine vote

Filipinos vote Monday in a midterm election expected to dash opposition hopes of impeaching President Gloria Arroyo.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At first glance, Monday's midterm election in the Philippines has a familiar look. An unpopular president, whose father occupied the same office, avoids the spotlight as her party tries to hold onto a congressional majority. Troops fight Islamic militants in a disputed territory as part of the global war on terror.

But unlike her US counterpart, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo seems set to retain her grip on the lower house, defying opponents who vowed to try again to impeach her after two failed efforts.

An administration victory would set the stage for Ms. Arroyo, an economist and staunch US ally, to rule until 2010, becoming the longest-serving president since strongman Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in 1996. Since then, presidents have been limited to a single six-year term, but then-vice president Arroyo served from 2001-2004 after her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, left office in disgrace.

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Across the Philippines, nearly 18,000 positions are being decided by up to 45 million registered voters, ranging from local municipal seats to national senators.

Half of the 24-member Senate is up for grabs, along with the entire House of Representatives. But opposition efforts to cast the vote as a referendum on Arroyo's legitimacy have floundered. Polls point to an opposition-dominated Senate and a pro-Arroyo House, an outcome that would bury any revived impeachment bid over alleged vote-rigging in the 2004 presidential election.

Local issues trump national politics

One reason for the opposition's frustration, say analysts, is that local issues and personalities take precedent over national politicking, allowing Arroyo's coalition to ride out her low poll numbers. Entrenched regional dynasties means that victory usually depends on which coalition has the local muscle to win. As political parties are weak, rudderless, and fluid, powerful families provide the glue for national alliances.

The other factor is the squabbling forces arrayed against Arroyo. "The opposition is disorganized and has been for the last few years. They just can't get their act together. In many constituencies, they can't even field a candidate," says Erin Prelypchan, an analyst at PSA Group, a political-risk consultancy based in Manila, the capita.

For foreign businesses in the Philippines, the prospect of continuity should be welcome. Having lagged behind its neighbors in recent years, the Philippines is undergoing a growth spurt that Arroyo's backers attribute to her economic stewardship. Critics say the growth has failed to trickle down to millions of Filipinos stuck in abject poverty.

Last month, Texas Instruments agreed to build a $1 billion semiconductor plant at a former US airbase near Manila. Business outsourcing is thriving: Sector revenues are forecast to reach $5 billion in 2007, employing over 100,000 Filipinos, according to an industry association. Among those investing in the Philippines are Indian industry executives who face rising costs at home, says Ms. Prelypchan.

Militant threats

Police warned Sunday that communist guerrillas planned to attack civilian targets to undermine the election. On the troubled island of Mindanao, where US-trained Philippine troops are pursuing Islamic separatists, at least five people died after a market bombing last week that authorities blamed on Muslim extremists. Analysts say that this and other incidents may be election-linked, and fit a pattern of political violence in the Philippines.

After the election, stalled talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are set to resume. While the fragile peace process hasn't featured in national campaigning, it looms large in the minds of voters in Mindanao, says Astrid Tuminez, a senior researcher at the US Institute for Peace.

Arroyo has managed to bring the MILF, which has fought since 1978 for a Muslim homeland, to the negotiating table. But there's plenty of heavy lifting needed to make any peace proposal stick in a Congress that's suspicious of autonomy deals, says Ms. Tuminez.

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