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Uneasy Calm in the Philippines After Impeachment Defeat

  • Douglas Bakshian

Relative political calm has settled over the Philippines, following the defeat of a move to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But analysts say a future storm is brewing because her ability to govern has been badly damaged and mounting economic problems will generate a new wave of discontent. Douglas Bakshian has more from Manila.

The Philippines is known for its "people power" uprisings that ousted Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, and later threw out President Joseph Estrada, or Erap, in 2001.

When a move in Congress to impeach Mrs. Arroyo failed this week, opposition leaders pledged to take re-ignite people power with massive street protests. But despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the scandal-tainted administration, most people stayed home.

Some political analysts say that is in part because the opposition has offered no clear alternative. Antonio Gatmaitan of the Political Economy Applied Research foundation says public discontent is like a horse without a rider.

"The sentiments of the people are really against President GMA (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) but the opposition figures so far have not been able to capture that essence. They've got the wrong people," he said.

Political science professor Benito Lim, at Ateneo de Manila University, strikes a similar theme.

"The opposition's weakness is that it does not have a face," he said. "They are not united, they don't have a common leader and they don't have a common program."

Leadership aside, the Filipino people are growing cynical. While the previous people power movements threw out bad leaders, the new leaders put in place failed to improve the lives of the citizens.

"The people were promised that there will be a better government and they will address the problems such as poverty, injustice, and so forth and so on. But after the presidents were deposed, nothing changed. They are as poor as ever, the economy is not growing, and their wages have stagnated for the last few years," said Mr. Lim.

Some opposition members also admit that Philippine democracy has done little for the people. Opposition Congressman Agapito Aquino says history is clear.

"I think people are very tired of utilizing this venue of people power," he said. "The first time they did it was to oust Marcos. Sure there was a more credible government, but maybe the fruits of democracy did not trickle down. So, then we had president Erap (popular name for Joseph Estrada), and then again people tried to have a better government. But again people have been frustrated."

Mr. Aquino is in a position to know. He is the brother of Benigno Aquino, a politician whose murder two decades ago led to the downfall of President Marcos. His widow, Corazon Aquino, went on to become president, but lacked the political support to institute many of the institutional and economic reforms needed to ease the Philippines' poverty.

The overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos led to a significant improvement in human rights and a strengthening of the independent news media and political opposition, but the Philippines remains beset by problems.

It remains racked by a Muslim separatist movement, that at times turns violent, and by a communist insurgency. Despite having an educated population and plentiful natural resources, the Philippines remains one of the poorest nations in Asia. And it suffers from considerable corruption at all levels of government.

The opposition vows to keep up pressure on President Arroyo through rallies and protests. In addition, the weak economy builds dissatisfaction among the citizens. Many analysts say her ability to govern has been weakened, and she is not likely to complete the remaining five years of her term. Professor Lim says the country is in a political standoff.

"Foreign investors are going to assume a wait-and-see attitude. And in the meantime the economy cannot recover given the political turmoil that will continue," he said. "The opposition will not stop. Gloria did not win, but neither did the opposition win. It's a stalemate."

The Arroyo administration, for its part, portrays its opponents as bad losers. Spokesman Ignacio Bunye has said they should respect the results of the impeachment process, and allow the country to get on with the business of the people.

President Arroyo has described the impeachment process as a grand display of political maturity, and said her opponents put up a good fight. She also offered to reconcile with the opposition.

But Congressman Aquino says reconciliation is not likely, and time is working against the administration.

"Right now people are just tired of Gloria," he said. "They are angry, but not really very, very angry as they were with Marcos before. So, right, now I think it will take more time to build up this outrage. People are angry but they are not outraged yet."

Analysts say the president has bought some time by defeating the impeachment move, but discontent is likely to build and emerge again.

The crisis began when tapes were released earlier this year of Mrs. Arroyo talking with an election official during the 2004 vote count. She admitted a lapse in judgment and apologized, but denies committing any illegal act.