Friday, October 30, 2009

What Keeps Arroyo Up at Night

MANILA - With only eight months left in Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's six-year term, talk is rife that she's likely to face charges in court once she steps down.

Leftists are demanding justice for the forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of human-rights activists, while the opposition is bent on prosecuting Arroyo for alleged corruption. She is barred constitutionally from seeking another term and her anointed presidential candidate for next year's elections is trailing badly in preliminary opinion polls.

Arroyo, also the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, currently enjoys immunity from lawsuits, a protective constitutional provision that also applies to any incumbent president. But once out of office, Arroyo can be sued similar to the cases brought against late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and ousted leader, Joseph Estrada.

Marcos, who ruled for nearly 20 years, was accused of human-rights violations, graft and corruption and other civil and criminal charges lodged in Philippine and US courts. However, he died in Hawaii in 1989. Estrada was the first ever Philippine president convicted and jailed for plunder, but Arroyo pardoned and freed him in 2007. Now, he's bidding to stage a political comeback by taking another shot at the presidency.

In granting executive clemency to Estrada, Arroyo has set a political precedent, apparently hoping that her presidential successor would extend similar leniency should she end up in disgrace. However, doubts exist that Arroyo would be spared prosecution after her exit because of the numerous scandals hounding her presidency.

Critics have roundly accused her of betrayal of the public trust, obstruction of justice and blatant violations of the constitution. Arroyo has faced three separate impeachment motions, but not one prevailed because of her overwhelming number of allies in Congress who quashed them. Invoking executive privilege, she once gagged officials from testifying before the opposition-led senate probing alleged government anomalies.

Arroyo has also survived three coup attempts after army generals loyal to her crushed them with brute force and detained rebel officers and soldiers. Militants staging street protests have been violently dispersed, causing a backlash over Arroyo's alleged authoritarian rule.

While previous presidents were also plagued by scandals, analysts say they pale in comparison with those pinned to Arroyo. In 2005, Arroyo was accused of rigging the 2004 presidential elections when she was caught on tape instructing a senior election official to ensure a winning margin of one million votes over a rival, the late movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. That conversation, inadvertently taped by intelligence operatives, was leaked, touching off waves of street demonstrations. To calm public indignation rallies and coup rumors, Arroyo quickly aired her side of the story on TV, saying basically, "I am sorry." But it was not enough to appease a public incensed over the alleged manipulation of the election result in her favor.
Embarrassed by the incident, at least 10 of Arroyo's senior cabinet officials resigned and joined the opposition's call for her to resign. The senate investigated the alleged vote-rigging, but like previous probes, nothing came out of it.

Other scandals that have tarnished her government's image include:

# The NBN-ZTE project in 2007. A businessman, Joey de Venecia, exposed the alleged overpricing by US$130 million of the $329-million National Broadband Network (NBN) contract between the Philippine government and China's ZTE Corp. The overpricing
was allegedly intended as "kickbacks" to Arroyo's husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, and Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos, who later resigned. Both denied the accusation. With plunging popularity ratings, Arroyo was forced to scrap the project. The whistleblower businessman's father, Jose de Venecia, was later ousted as speaker of the House of Representatives.

# Fertilizer fund scam in 2004. Opposition Senator Panfilo Lacson accused Arroyo of illegally diverting part of the government's 700 million peso ($14.6 million) fertilizer fund to help bankroll her presidential campaign that year. The alleged "bagman", former agriculture under secretary, Jocelyn Bolante, was later arrested by US immigration authorities in Los Angeles on the Philippine senate's recommendation and extradited to Manila. He was charged with plunder before the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan.

# Bribery in 2007. Some 100 congressmen and 200 local officials were each allegedly handed out paper bags containing between 200,000 pesos (US$4,100) and 500,000 pesos after a breakfast meeting with Arroyo at the Malacanang presidential palace. Then-congress speaker Jose de Venecia said the bribe money was intended to rally support against an impeachment case filed against her. Officials and Arroyo have denied the charges.

# Overpriced railway projects in 2007. Opposition legislators denounced what they branded as "the greatest train robbery in history" when the Arroyo government signed loans from China and South Korea for a $503 million NorthRail mass transit project and the US$932 million SouthRail projects, which they claimed were corruptly overpriced.

Asked during a recent TV interview if they would prosecute Arroyo, some aspirants in next year's presidential election said they would initiate the filing of cases if there is sufficient evidence.

"If there's a prima facie evidence, I would prosecute and try to put Arroyo in jail because there are a lot of unfinished questions that hang around her legitimacy and I would not be hesitant to actually pursue a case against her," independent presidential candidate Nicanor Perlas said.

Estrada, however, said Arroyo should not be singled out, apparently in deference to the pardon she granted him. But, he said, he favored cracking down on corrupt government officials. "All those crooks in the government should be given due process and certainty of punishment," the former president, who was convicted on plunder charges, said.

Meanwhile, speculation is mounting that Arroyo will likely run for a congressional seat in next year's elections to stay in power and stave off possible filing of cases against her. Arroyo, however, has kept mum on her political plans, but close aides as well as her congressman son, said that like every Filipino it is her right and prerogative to seek a public office.

"There is no prohibition in the constitution or any law whatsoever that would prevent her from running for another position," Commission on Elections chairman and Arroyo ally Jose Melo said.

Critics, however, have said it would be "foolish" for Arroyo to run for a lower public office, saying it would be tantamount to abandoning the presidency. Her term expires on June 30, 2010. It would also be unfair to other rivals since Arroyo would still have government resources at her disposal. Some speculate that Arroyo may be eyeing the position of speaker of the House of Representatives, whose members have backed her proposal for a shift in the form of government from a presidential to parliamentary system. That would bolster her chances of one day emerging as prime minister and thus keeping the many potential charges against her at bay.

By Al Labita journalist for over 30 years, including as a regional bureau chief and foreign editor for the Philippine News Agency. He has worked as a Manila correspondent for several major local publications and wire agencies in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

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