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MANILA — Political life is always exciting in this fascinating country of over 7,000 islands, be it in periods of great upheavals, as with the two famous “EDSA” popular movements or during subsequent periods of transition in search of calm and stability, as at the present moment.

A recent visit to the Philippines yielded various impressions. The prevailing image is one of calm after the storm that ushered in a peaceful change of leadership at the Malaganang palace just a few months ago.

Naturally, there is still anxiety and some lingering fears about the “Erap factor,” especially given the fact that the country is preparing for elections in May. Judicial complications with regard to the destiny of the former leader and his eventual punishment or pardon unavoidably cast a shadow over these elections and present a crucial dilemma for the new leadership.

The topic is continuously and passionately discussed throughout Manila.

“Something must be done by way of example in order to break the vicious circle; otherwise we are doomed to go hopelessly from EDSA II to EDSA III ad infinitum,” says one Manila resident.

Those in business and academia voice strong support for the new president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, placing a great deal of hope on her vision and her pledge for a more transparent, just and correct administration. Only then, they say, will investments follow.

The culture of violence and kidnappings must be banished once and for all if foreign money is to ever start to flow again in this direction. This theme is continuously stressed by the president on down. The Filipino press — one of the most articulate in Asia — is generally rallying behind Arroyo, dismissing the chances of massive success by pro-Estrada candidates. If the latter rely on the former actor’s appeal to the masses, “they are dead wrong,” writes commentator Rigoberto Tiglao.

Although a supporter of EDSA II, another analyst, Jose Sison, cautions that the letter of the law must be strictly adhered to, providing Estrada with every legal means of defense.

Editorial writer Teodoro Benigno writes, abandoned by the gods of Mount Olympus, Estrada “is now imploring the gods of chance.” Estrada’s 1998 public-approval rating of 38 percent, Sison continues, is now to only 23-25 percent. And he concludes: “Once the prosecution of Estrada is back on track, his vaunted magic will vanish.”

Life in the gigantic capital of Manila seems more relaxed than during a previous visit last summer. Security measures are still in place at shopping malls and hotels, but there are no more red alerts. At the domestic airport, thousands of happy vacationers, especially young people, come to catch early morning flights to their hometowns, looking calm and happy.

Arroyo displays an extraordinary determination to change the overall traumatized perception of her country. She tours the countryside and addresses the masses in a way that they can relate to. “I speak to you not only as the president, but also as a wife and a mother,” she says with emotion. Can she deliver on her promises? Perhaps yes, but she will need much more time than the remaining three years of her term. Therefore her supporters are already looking toward gaining another six-year mandate in the next election.

In a conversation with Teofisto Guingona, a respected statesman and academic, the new vice president and secretary of foreign affairs stated the need for stability and transparency at the national level and the need for negotiation rather than confrontation with the rebels in his troubled home province of Mindanao.

Arroyo deserves praise for her choice of Guingona as her deputy. A veteran in the fields of human rights, justice, constitutional law and a former member of the the Senate, he was the only legislator to formally call for Estrada’s resignation. A tour in the central Philippines in the area of the majestic beauty of the famous Mayon volcano, reveals an agricultural country full of resources and talented people facing the twin obstacles of poverty and mismanagement.

Segments of good roads interspersed with bad ones vividly reflect corruption on the part of local authorities, explained a local. Election signs are everywhere, and there is even talk that election money may succeed in propelling some of the candidates of the opposition to victory, but people seem to go on peacefully about their everyday lives, many still hoping for a brighter future, at least for their children.

Commencement ceremonies in two well known maritime colleges proceed in an atmosphere of dignity and warmth, as about 1,000 cadets approach the podium to receive medals and diplomas, accompanied by their proud parents, most of them simple rural folk. These young people, and millions like them across the country, will help build a new Philippines. Indeed, this vast archipelago, with its vast human and natural resources, only has a shortage in one area: good political leaders.

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