New Philippine leader faces crisis

The arrest last week of former President Estrada has unleashed daily protests against his successor.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was supposed to be "the healing president" - a technocrat who would restore the battered image of the Philippines, and begin to mend the nation after corruption scandals disgraced the administration of former President Joseph Estrada.

But three months after a so-called people power revolt swept her to the pinnacle of power, Mrs. Arroyo faces her own tidal wave of opposition that threatens to take her down. Tens of thousands of protesters have converged in Manila daily since last Wednesday, following the unprecedented arrest of Mr. Estrada on charges of plundering the country while in office.

This round of protests exposes the gulf between a privileged elite, who comprised the mass protests against Estrada, and the underprivileged, who never identified with Arroyo or supported her elevation to the presidency in January.

"I'd like to kill Arroyo," hisses one elderly demonstrator, her face contorted with anger, as others cheer her on. "She is not the president. Erap [Estrada's nickname] is still the president."

The fate of Estrada has brought Arroyo's ambitious agenda of reform and governmental transparency under threat. Rumors of an impending coup have swept the capital. The currency and stock market are sunk in gloom.

The central charge of economic plunder - under which Estrada is accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks - could be punishable by the death penalty. Pursuing him through the courts, say Arroyo supporters, is the only way she can prove she's serious about rooting out the corruption that has for so long undermined development here.

"This is a watershed moment," says Peter Wallace, long-time Philippines observer and business analyst. "It's very rare that anyone rich or famous is caught by the court system, and this sends a very strong signal about the country's determination to make some real change now."

Damage control

Arroyo is putting a brave face on what is plainly a perilous situation. At a news conference yesterday marking her first 100 days in office, she insisted there was no crisis. "It's business as usual," she said.

At the same time, the president said evidence of a plot against her government had been revealed.

"Last night there was going to be a power grab, but it fizzled out," Arroyo told reporters. She wouldn't name the conspirators but said she wished they had followed through. "I was hoping they would act so I could crush them." She repeated previous assertions - questioned by many Filipinos - that the Army and police squarely support her.

In places like Manila's Makati business district, where the ouster of Estrada in January commanded overwhelming support among the middle classes, gloating over the former movie star's downfall is barely concealed. "I think he deserves what's happening to him," says Mart Cura, manager of the smart Azzurro Bistro. "He made billions within two years in office, so I hope he won't get away with it."

Estrada's dramatic arrest last week was almost certainly the easy part. The ensuing protests have rattled the government with their size and persistence.

As many as 100,000 demonstrators have congregated daily around the huge statue of the Virgin Mary that marks the capital's most celebrated religious shrine, the same spot that witnessed two previous "people power" revolutions - against dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and then against Estrada.

With hindsight, some Arroyo supporters say the arrest was ill-timed, coming so soon before crucial Senate, congressional, and local elections on May 14, the president's first electoral test since she took office.

"They've given the opposition the opportunity to exploit this for electoral ends," says political analyst Conrado de Quiros. By making a victim of Estrada, he says, the government has allowed his supporters to claim the moral high ground and distract attention from Arroyo's genuine achievements.

Of these, the most significant may be the new round of peace talks with the country's two main rebel groups. Last week, government negotiators and representatives of the communist National Democratic Front opened face-to-face talks on neutral territory in Norway. Peace discussions with the main Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, are expected to resume in the next few weeks.

Arroyo's determination to end these long-running and debilitating conflicts marks a departure from the gung-ho, confrontational strategy of Estrada, and it's earned her widespread applause.

"Everybody knows war is not the solution," says Gunter Hecker of the Asian Development Bank in Manila. "The new government sensed there is a chance for peace, and it seems that good progress is being made."

New efforts at transparency

Arroyo's crackdown on corruption - the main issue that catapulted her to power - scores high marks among many. "We can really feel how transparent this administration wants to be," says a source at a leading aid agency. "The people have shown that they won't accept corruption as usual. So the people in power have set higher standards for themselves, and Mrs. Arroyo has made herself the champion of this."

But some of Arroyo's governmental appointments have attracted the charge that she's too reliant on old-time politicians from the era of former presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, and on the top-level military and police officers who ensured her presidency. Reynaldo Berroya, whom she appointed to the highly sensitive post of intelligence chief in the Philippine National Police, was convicted of kidnapping in 1995 but acquitted two years later.

More worrying is the challenge that lies ahead. Even as she completes the first 100 days of her leadership, the "healing president" has much to prove.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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