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Dissatisfaction Rising With Philippines President Arroyo - 2002-01-18

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo marks her first year in office Sunday. She was swept into the presidency when her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, lost the support of his cabinet and military amid massive street demonstrations over alleged government corruption.

But despite her dramatic ascent to power, there is growing disappointment with President Arroyo's performance.

When President Joseph Estrada was forced to abandon his office last January 20, many people had hoped that his vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, would change the country. Mr. Estrada departed under a cloud of corruption and cronyism allegations, and people wanted Ms. Arroyo to end all that. Now one year later, dissatisfaction is again on the rise.

As a priest celebrated mass for President Arroyo and other government officials Wednesday in Manila, protesters demonstrated outside.

They complain the government has not reduced poverty, lacks the political will to implement reforms to eliminate graft and improve the bureaucracy, and is becoming isolated from the people.

According to the independent pollster, Pulse Asia, Ms. Arroyo's popularity dropped to 57 percent in December from a high of 63 percent in October.

Joel Rocamora, head of the independent, academic Institute for Popular Democracy, says Ms. Arroyo is has done more for the economy than Mr. Estrada. But, he says, the administration lacks the leadership to make some tough changes.

"It doesn't have enough confidence in itself as an administration capable of taking serious political initiative, especially reform initiative," he says.

Some analysts suggest Ms. Arroyo is avoiding the tough decisions to avoid jeopardizing her own political future. Teddy Casino is the head of Bayan Muna, an activist group that helped mobilize Estrada opponents last year.

"We felt that she should have used the mandate that was given to her to really do the things that have to be done, make choices which would probably antagonize some sectors but would be good for the whole, for the majority. But because she has to keep these alliances for the purpose of getting elected in 2004, there is the pressure for her to compromise on so many issues," he says.

Mr. Rocamora at the Institute for Popular Democracy says Ms. Arroyo is taking the important step of consolidating support from influential groups but is forgetting the power of the masses, which brought her into and keeps her in office.

Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao defends the government's achievements in the past year and says the president will deliver more in the years to come.

"You can expect this presidency to be hard working, graft-free presidency. You can expect her to explain more and more her vision and that this vision will be realized as we work harder and harder," he says.

Mr. Tiglao says the economy grew more than three percent in the first three-quarters of the year and inflation is under control. He adds that the government distributed hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to the rural poor in its anti-poverty program.

But much of the president's attention has been deflected from her anti-poverty program by the Muslim separatist movement in the crime-plagued south. The government has suffered a major embarrassment because the military has failed to end a nine-month hostage saga staged by Abu Sayyaf rebels - who claim to be fighting for Muslim independence but are better known for their high-profile kidnappings.

The military has come under fire not just for incompetence, but for allegations that some elements in the army are taking bribes from the Abu Sayyaf - a group that has been vaguely linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Critics say Ms. Arroyo should have cracked down on the Armed Forces as part of her pledge to clean up government. But analysts say the administration must tread carefully and not antagonize the military, whose crucial switch of loyalties last year was instrumental in Mr. Estrada's ouster.

The president says she is determined to serve all the Philippine people and will not be bowed by powerbrokers and intermittent coup rumors.

In a recent speech, President Arroyo promises to meet with all groups that supported last year's uprising, whether they remain on her side or are now critics of her government. She says she will consult more with poor communities that often have little say in government policy.

Her critics, however, have said meetings with unhappy voters will not be enough, if the meetings do not turn into action.