Gloria's Last Stand? Yet Another Embattled President Is Circling the Wagons in Manila

Article excerpt

Byline: George Wehrfritz and Marites Vitug

In Philippine politics, it's often the relatives who stand out in a crisis. In the 1980s Imelda Marcos's penchant for designer shoes defined the excesses of her husband Ferdinand's dictatorship. His ouster capped a "people power" revolution orchestrated by the widow of a powerful Marcos opponent assassinated two years earlier. Today the relative in the klieg lights is Jose (Mike) Miguel, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's businessman husband, who allegedly took payoffs from illegal gambling syndicates and conspired with his wife to fix the last presidential election. He denies the charges, yet last week Arroyo announced that the First Gentleman had "volunteered to go abroad" in an effort "to remove himself from any situation which will cast doubt on my presidency."

The decision betrayed a tinge of desperation. Congressman Joey Salceda, one of Arroyo's closest allies, told NEWSWEEK the presidential palace was in "affirmative mode" after the administration's toughest week in office. But he added somewhat ominously: "To save the queen, we should sacrifice the king, the bishop and the rook."

Will Queen Gloria survive? That question hangs in the air across the Philippines (and, indeed, among international investors) as the president struggles to weather an all-too-familiar string of scandals. Among them: allegations that warlords running underground jueteng lotteries had Arroyos on their payroll; that Mike pocketed $5 million in surplus campaign funds after his wife's May 2004 election victory, and that the couple conspired to rig that contest. The final charge gained credibility a month ago, when wiretaps surfaced supposedly capturing the president, during the vote count, fixing the outcome by telephone with an election commissioner. After a three-week silence, Arroyo nervously acknowledged the conversation on national television, but called it a "lapse in judgment" and not a crime.

That's a legal question, of course. But if recent history is any indication, the odds are good that it will be settled on Manila's streets. Most of Arroyo's opponents are aligned with former president Joseph Estrada, an actor turned politician who was ousted during 2001 protests dubbed "People Power II." They now view turnabout as fair play. They're organizing mass protests to drive her out of power to vindicate the late Fernando Poe, who they believe was cheated out of an election victory in the 2004 presidential race. Their symbolic leader is Poe's widow, Susan Roces, who last week accused Arroyo of "stealing the presidency, not once but twice."

The backdrop to this sordid political soap opera is a country that's become truly bleak. Once at the vanguard of the political change that swept the globe in the 1980s, the Philippines has turned out to be the clown in a class of new democracies. Its economy is growing but hamstrung by a serious debt problem, 25 percent of the population lives in abject poverty and corruption is arguably as bad as during the Marcos era. Perhaps the saddest measure of all is the daily exodus. Last year the Philippines "exported" more than a million people to work fishing boats in the Pacific, build skyscrapers in Dubai or change nappies in places like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Ironically, even the chief architect of democratization now perceives "a fatal flaw" in the system. In an essay published last April, former president Corazon Aquino argued that entrenched institutions, including the police, the courts and most ministries, remained arrayed against change in the Philippines. "Even the best and the brightest... could not wrestle governance out of the grips of corruption, patronage, and inefficiency," she wrote. According to polls by Pulse Asia, the public's trust in government has eroded dangerously because successive administrations have failed to deliver what average people want most--a better standard of living. Between 1990 and 2002, the average annual growth of per capita income was 1. …