Philippines: The King Departs, The Queen Arrives


Dr R.J. May

Now the tumult and the shouting have died, and the captains and the kings have, it seems, departed, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo faces the task of consolidating its position behind a reform agenda.

On 2 March the Philippines Supreme Court handed down a 13-0 decision recognizing Macapagal-Arroyo (now popularly referred to as 'GMA') as the legitimate president. Former President Estrada is still talking about a legal challenge to his removal from the presidency, and he has a little popular support, but prevented from leaving the country, and facing further charges, his hopes of being restored by a 'people power III' are in the realms of fantasy. Meanwhile rumours of a military coup, which always seemed unlikely, have subsided following the appointment of a new defence secretary, former Armed Forces chief Angelo Reyes, and a new AFP commander, former head of Southern Command, Lt General Diomedio Villanueva. Reyes replaces Orlando Mercado, defence secretary under Estrada, who resigned in January in protest at the appointment of General Lisandro Abadia as national security adviser. Abadia had been under investigation for fraud, and the appointment has since been rescinded.

There is still some debate about whether the popular campaign which led to the demise of Estrada was a genuine 'People Power II', and indeed whether the removal of an elected president by mass protests and the announced withdrawal of support by the Armed Forces was an abrogation of democratic procedures. Certainly, the popular mobilization which removed a corrupt president in 2001 lacked the historical impact of the uprising which overthrew a dictator in 1986, but had the Senate not voted to block critical evidence in January - in front of millions of captivated TV viewers - people might not have considered it necessary to invoke people power. As it is, some are already attributing the change of government to 'rich peoples' power'

Now, however, the incoming president must now address the immediate issues of running the country. In an inauguration address in January Macapagal-Arroyo promised to pursue four core objectives: elimination of poverty; improved moral standards as a basis for good governance (including an attack on corruption); a change in the character of Philippine politics 'to create fertile ground for true reforms'; and leadership by example, matching action to rhetoric. It is an ambitious, and not entirely unfamiliar, set of objectives. Poverty alleviation, in particular, has been the top-listed priority of every president since 1986, but with little real achievement.

In the economic sphere the president (herself an economist) has appointed former foreign secretary and IBM executive Roberto Romulo as economic adviser and senior adviser on international competitiveness, and is seeking to reinvigorate the economic liberalization program initiated under President Ramos.

On the political front, the government has announced that it will release a number of political prisoners, will resume peace negotiations with the Left. Talks with the National Democratic Front are scheduled for 27 April, though the NDF is demanding a number of preconditions. The government will also seek renewed peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao (against whom a rigorous campaign was waged in 2000, under the leadership of General Villanueva).

WATCHPOINT: Local and Congressional elections, to be held in mid May, will provide an early test of support for the new president.


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