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Manila Calm, While Catholic Bishops Ponder Support for Embattled President


Over the past few days, influential supporters of Philippine President Gloria Arroyo have been deserting her left and right, as she faces censure and possible impeachment over allegations of electoral fraud.

The highly influential Catholic Bishops Conference is now meeting to decide whether the bishops, too, will join the clamor for Mrs. Arroyo to step down voluntarily. If not, she could be driven from office by massive protests like two of her four immediate predecessors. Barry Kalb in VOA's Asia Pacific bureau in Hong Kong questioned journalist Michael Barker about the political situation in Manila.

Kalb: "Michael, how would you describe the atmosphere there in Manila right now [Saturday]? Reading about it from a distance, it's all starting to sound a bit breathless, but I would imagine that's a bit exaggerated."

Barker: "Yes, it is in fact pretty calm. I'm looking at pictures on television as we speak outside Malacanang, the presidential palace, and it's pretty much deserted… I understand there's a small rally going on in an adjoining city, Quezon City… But there's none of the masses that we've seen during the 'people power' revolts of 1986 and 2001."

Kalb: "Does Mrs. Arroyo seem to have any significant allies left at all at this point?"

Barker: "Yes, but they seem to be dwindling. Yesterday evening the former president, Fidel Ramos, came out in a brief televised address, said the way out of the impasse now is a constitutional change, a shift, in fact, from a presidential system to a parliamentary system… In addition to that, yes, some of her cabinet members are still standing by her, some of her party members, a few other groups like the mayors of Manila have come out on her behalf… But very crucially, some key groups have also turned their back on the president, and in particular the influential business organization, the Makati Business Club, and that spells bad news for her, because they've been a key support group for her."

Kalb: "The Catholic Bishops' Conference is supposedly meeting today, and I've read that the bishops are expected to issue a statement on the political situation. Now, I realize the Church is inordinately influential in Philippine politics, but do you think a call by them for Mrs. Arroyo to resign would be enough to tip the balance against her?"

Barker: "Yes, I think that's very possible, one can't underestimate the importance and influence of the Church here. It was the Church that was at the vanguard of pressuring former president Marcos to leave the country in 1986. They were also in the forefront in the ouster of President Estrada in 2001. A lot of the commentators here have said - I think one said, 'The army won't move until the people move, and the people won't move until the Church moves.' So I think people in Manila and elsewhere in the country are very much waiting for what the Catholic Bishops Conference will come up with. There is a possibility - and I stress, only a possibility - that the army, seeing the Church withdraw support from her, may well do the same, at which point she'd really be left out on a limb, and it would be hard to see how she could carry on from there."

Kalb: "If she does resign, the question is, how might it be done this time. Some people have made the point that, whether or not Mrs. Arroyo is found to be corrupt, it's not a good idea to keep monkeying with the Philippine constitution, if you will, by simply driving legitimately elected presidents out of office before their terms are up."

Barker: "Mostly likely, if she decides she doesn't have enough allies to carry on. I suspect there will be announcement from the presidential palace, and that will be followed very swiftly thereafter by a swearing-in ceremony for the vice president, Noli de Castro, who under the constitution here would succeed an outgoing president."

Kalb: "So you think if it happens this time it will be an orderly, voluntary act - albeit under pressure - and we won't see another situation where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos are pouring into the streets in order to 'scare' the president out of office?"

Barker: "I think so, yes. We've yet to see large numbers of warm bodies on the streets here similar to what we saw in 2001 and 1986. Perhaps there's a degree of 'people power' fatigue here. I must stress, though, she is tending to dig in her heels. She struck a defiant tone yesterday when she was staying on, she said it's essential for the rule of law to do so. So it's not inevitable that she's going to go easy."

The Catholic Bishops are expected to issue a statement sometime in the next day or two. Until then, the entire country will be waiting - calmly, if Michael Barker's observations are borne out - to hear the Church's verdict on President Gloria Arroyo.

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