Plagued by scandal, Philippine president battles back

On Sunday, the country's Catholic bishops refused to call for the resignation of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Under siege by her former cabinet ministers and an array of academic and religious figures, Filipino President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is battling her way through a crisis that may either destroy her politically - or strengthen her hand for the remaining five years of her six-year term.

The confrontation between Ms. Arroyo and her critics, boiling amid charges of vote-buying in her victory over a former actor, the late Fernando Poe Jr., in the presidential election in May 2004, has replaced debate on pervasive corruption in the armed forces and badly needed economic and social reform. The new debate: Should she resign, call a snap election, or tough it out?

Arroyo, in her struggle for political survival, clearly has the support of American officials, fearful that a revolt against her will completely destabilize the country, seen as a critical front in the global war against terrorism.

"We support the rule of law," says Joseph Mussomeli, charge d'affaires at the US Embassy here. "Within that context, we believe the president is still the president."

An American ally

US officials view Arroyo, who initially came to power less than eight months before 9/11, as a strong partner in the pursuit of Islamic extremists influenced and trained by Al Qaeda. In the months after the attack, a small force of US military advisers set up headquarters in Zamboanga, a major port city on the large southern island of Mindanao, bringing US troops back on a permanent basis for the first time in 10 years.

Mr. Poe died of a stroke seven months after the election, leaving Arroyo's foes without a clear figure around whom to rally. But 10 members of her cabinet met with Vice President Noli de Castro, a former television news anchorman, before handing in their resignations and calling for hers. And Corazon Aquino, the woman who became president in 1986 after leading the People Power revolution against the late Ferdinand Marcos, has publicly called for Arroyo's resignation.

That kind of talk appears to have steeled Arroyo's determination to stay. Professing "all due respect" for Aquino, she says, such demands "undermine our democratic principles and the very foundation of our constitution" and "must stop."

Arroyo may have won a reprieve with the reluctance of the country's powerful Catholic bishops to join calls for her to quit. Instead, the Catholic Bishops' Conference wound up a two-day meeting Sunday saying, "We do not demand her resignation." They did, however, give tacit support to a "truth commission" and "an impeachment case" in the Congress.

As respected columnist Amando Doronila puts it, the bishops' decision "has halted the momentum of the clamor for her to step down" despite "erosion of her support in key segments of the business community and part of the cabinet."

A Georgetown-trained economist, daughter of Marcos's predecessor, Disodado Macapagal, Arroyo has also been frustrated in attempts to impose a tax badly needed to begin to pull the Philippines out from under a national debt load of $70 billion.

The Supreme Court has blocked a controversial value added tax on critical commodities, such as gasoline and electricity, while attempts to raise corporate and other taxes have repeatedly failed in a Congress dominated by friends and allies of business interests notorious for avoiding taxes of any kind.

An overriding concern here is the threat of a military coup - something rebellious officers have attempted eight times since the overthrow of Marcos, most recently two years ago against Arroyo.

"There seems to be too much focus on retaining power or, on the opposition side, attaining power - and not enough concern at all for the welfare of the Filipino people," Mr. Mussomeli says.

Arroyo, who was vice president before toppling Estrada, is by no means through. Demonstrations against her have so far failed to attract more than 10,000 protesters, by generous estimates.

'Lapse in judgment'

Her worst mistake was to have suggested in a telephone conversation with an election official during the prolonged toting-up of ballots after last year's election that she wanted to win by at least a million votes.

The current crisis was precipitated when her foes aired a tape recording of the conversation, forcing her eventually to acknowledge her "lapse in judgment." (In fact, the final tally showed her receiving 39 percent of the votes against 37 percent for Poe - nearly 13 million against nearly 12 million.)

Adding fuel to the flames, Arroyo's husband, Jose Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo, brother-in-law, and son have all been accused of profiteering - and financing her rise to political power - from kickbacks on illegal gambling, known here as jueteng. They have all denied the charges, but her husband and son have both gone to the United States, after she said her husband was leaving "voluntarily" to escape the controversy.

"He wants to leave so that the president can do her work," says Mr. Arroyo's attorney. "He is saddened by reports that are erroneous."

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