Philippines: Testing Times for President Arroyo


Professor Mark Turner

EDSA is the major Manila thoroughfare whose name is synonymous with ‘people power’. Two presidents have been ousted by multitudes of non-violent EDSA protesters who shared visions of a better future for the Philippines. But on 1 May we saw how such demonstrations can manifest a dark side. Following the 25 April arrest of ex-President Estrada on charges of corruption, large crowds of his supporters started to gather at EDSA and maintain a vigil there. Journalists characterised the crowd’s behaviour as different from previous people power actions on EDSA and used adjectives such as ‘undisciplined’, ‘rowdy’ and ‘volatile’.

At 2.00am on 1 May, allegedly incited by inflammatory speeches by leading opposition politicians, thousands of the protesters left EDSA to march on Malacañang, the presidential palace. They easily breached police barricades along the 10 kilometres route and having arrived at the palace posed a real threat to the president’s safety. This prompted the police to take strong action which left four civilians and one policeman dead, at least 100 persons injured. Damage to property was estimated at 100,000 pesos. President Arroyo declared a state of rebellion in Manila and arrest warrants were issued for leading figures in the opposition.

The Manila rumour mill ran hot. The so-called mob was seen to have employed military tactics and was perhaps manipulated in an organised attempt to unseat the government. Large sums of money were reported to have been offered to buy off the military – from 300,000 pesos for a sergeant up to 2 million pesos for a colonel, and the sky the limit for a general. Chinese-Filipino businessmen were accused of funding the rebellion but vehemently denied the claim. Opposition politicians had allegedly tried to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with President Arroyo on the night of the rebellion. There was even a story that there were plans for both President Arroyo and ex-President Estrada to be killed in the mayhem. Because the Estrada supporters appeared to be drawn from the ranks of Manila’s poor there was much talk of class war.

But the EDSA crowd dispersed quickly after the Malacañang attack and after one week President Arroyo lifted the state of rebellion order, confident that she had matters under control and that the military and police remained loyal to her. Now both she and the population could turn their full attention to what was supposed to be the main political event of May – elections for political office at local, provincial and national level. These elections were widely seen as a test of legitimacy for President Arroyo. Would the population vote for her candidates and thus endorse her people power route to the presidency? The critical competition was for 13 of the 24 Senate seats because in the senatorial battle the candidates of President Arroyo (People’s Power Coalition) and those of ex-President Estrada (Puwersa ng Masa) could be clearly delineated. Also, the senatorial election is nationwide with all voters faced with the same slate of candidates. The legislative importance of the Senate is that it can make or break the policy initiatives of the executive. Lacking a friendly Senate, President Arroyo could find her development program for the Philippines snared in policy gridlock. Late in May, control of the Senate still hung in the balance.

WATCHPOINT: Will President Arroyo get the Senate majority she needs for her development program?


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