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Philippine President Battling Vote Rigging Allegations

The Philippine Congress has started hearings on allegations that President Gloria Arroyo tried to cheat her way to victory in last year's election. The latest controversy is the most serious to hit Ms. Arroyo's presidency.

Protesters display their placards during a rally calling for the ouster of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
It is these secretly recorded telephone conversations that have sparked the latest protests, coup rumors and politicking in Manila. Her accusers say President Arroyo and election officials conspired to rig returns in last year's presidential election in her favor. She beat her closest rival, former actor Fernando Poe Junior, by just more than a million votes. Opposition lawmakers and their supporters are demanding she resign immediately.

Instead, Ms. Arroyo has chosen to remain silent on the charges, despite widespread calls for her to explain the tapes. Political analysts say her silence only reinforces public perception that she has something to hide.

This latest political scandal is the most serious allegation made against President Arroyo, and if proved guilty of rigging the elections, she could lose her presidency.

Ms. Arroyo came to office in January 2001 after mass protests toppled former actor-turned-president, Joseph Estrada, over corruption allegations. Since then, Mr. Estrada's supporters have challenged her legitimacy, while the former president remains in detention during protracted legal battles for graft.

There have been limited street protests against President Arroyo - but nothing yet as large as those that brought down her predecessor.

Rizal Buendia, a politics professor at De La Salle University in Manila, said the lack of major street demonstrations suggests growing public apathy over the infighting of the elite. "Everyone knows there's no such thing as clean elections and it's simply an issue between the current administration and the opposition. The public would prefer to go on with their lives. They would prefer queuing up in recruitment agencies for employment overseas rather than massing up in demonstrations," he said.

Popular protests have overthrown two Philippine presidents in the past 19 years. But the so-called "people power revolutions" barely changed the country's political power structure.

Many of those who govern come from wealthy families or those with long-time political connections. President Arroyo herself is the daughter of a former president.

Since Ms. Arroyo took power, she has faced attempts to topple her presidency. In May 2001, a mob forced its way into the Malacanang Presidential Palace saying she grabbed power illegally. In June 2003, a group of disgruntled soldiers staged a rebellion in the capital's business district. Ms. Arroyo's supporters blamed these actions on supporters of her predecessor, Mr. Estrada.

But Mr. Buendia said, despite political mudslinging, there is real dissatisfaction with the presidency's inability to deal with the country's problems. "Destabilization efforts coming from the opposition would remain to be popular in as much as people don't see any credible solution in addressing their fundamental problems - corruption, poverty, malnutrition, ignorance," he said.

Public frustration centers on endemic poverty in a country where the political elite openly live posh lifestyles. Political infighting has made economic reform seemingly impossible. In the 1950s, the Philippines prided itself as being one of Asia's best economies. But, it has struggled over the past 30 years, while other Asian economies have prospered. Now, nearly half the country's population lives on less than a dollar a day. The Philippine economy also relies heavily on foreign currency sent home by the army of workers it exports overseas.

Some migrant workers are angry with Ms. Arroyo, accusing her of ignoring their needs, despite their economic contributions. On a visit to Hong Kong this week to meet investors, President Arroyo faced protests by some of the more than 100,000 Filipinos employed here, most as domestic helpers.

Dolores Balladares, chairperson of a migrant rights group, UNIFIL, slammed Ms. Arroyo for prioritizing foreign investors over Filipino workers who have acted as a lifeline for the economy. Ms. Balladares said she doubts Ms. Arroyo would be able to attract investment to the Philippines if she cannot address fundamental issues such as poverty and corruption.

Earlier this month, a visibly tired President Arroyo said in her Independence Day speech that she would work on democracy and that she would do all she could to alleviate poverty.

Political analysts predict Ms. Arroyo will survive this latest crisis because she lacks any effective challenger. The opposition is weak following the death last year of its leader, former presidential candidate Fernando Poe Junior. And Ms. Arroyo's party also holds a majority in both houses of Congress, making an impeachment unlikely.