Why Aquino, fresh off Philippines elections victory, risks being outflanked

In the Philippines election this week, outgoing President Gloria Arroyo won a seat in Congress, where she aims to become House Speaker and challenge the expected incoming president, Benigno Aquino.

By , Correspondent

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    Philippine President Gloria Arroyo waves to supporters as she arrives to be proclaimed the winning Congresswoman of the 2nd District of Pampanga province in ceremonies Wednesday at San Fernando city, Pampanga province in northern Philippines.
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The outgoing administration of President Gloria Arroyo made preparations Thursday to hand over to her likely successor, opposition Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, following his apparent victory in Monday’s election. But Ms. Arroyo is far from finished as a political force.

The Constitution barred Arroyo from running for another term as president, but on Monday voters in her home district north of Manila elected her to the House of Representatives by a landslide.

It was unprecedented for an outgoing president to run for Congress, and her opponents originally suspected she was seeking immunity from prosecution. Aquino has promised to have Arroyo investigated for corruption during her administration.

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Facing investigation

In fact, she will have no immunity as a congresswoman. But members of Arroyo’s Lakas-Kampi-NUCD party have sought to protect her – politically, at least. They have made no secret of their plan to make her speaker of the House. This would make her the focus of opposition to the new president, and so make any investigation appear to be an act of political spite.

Despite the tension between Arroyo and Aquino, the outgoing president has promised a smooth handover of power.

“I am putting our government at the disposal of the incoming leadership,” she said after winning her seat in the House.

Aquino campaigned on an anticorruption platform, seeking to contrast himself with Arroyo, whose administration was plagued by scandal. In particular, her opponents accused her of winning the 2004 presidential election by fraud. Arroyo denies any wrongdoing.

Administration officials have said they will cooperate with any investigation.

“All of those who might be brought to the courts, not only the first family but also others who might have erred in the performance of their duties, are ready to explain, and face any investigation,” said Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza on Wednesday.

Working through Congress

Whether Arroyo can become speaker depends on the makeup of the new Congress, which was not yet clear after Monday’s elections.

However, Aquino’s Liberal Party has accepted that it will not have a majority in the House, and that it will need to find allies to push through new legislation.

The dominant party in the outgoing Congress was Arroyo’s party, which, despite election losses and defections to other parties, remains a force to be reckoned with.

Arroyo’s opponents are suspicious of the idea of her becoming speaker not only because of the influence she would wield in that office. They suspect that she and her allies will try to push Congress to change the Constitution, substituting a British-style parliamentary system for the present American-style presidential system.

This, her opponents argue, would allow her to regain executive power by becoming prime minister, leaving the president with only a ceremonial role.

Under Arroyo, the House attempted to convene special joint congressional sessions to revise the Constitution. Arroyo denied that she was behind these efforts, saying the initiative came from Congress itself.

Aquino has said he will ask a new commission to look into whether the Constitution needs to be revised, though he has shown little enthusiasm for such a change.

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