Impeachment charges against Philippines President Gloria Arroyo have been dismissed. The move is a relief for the embattled president, but it is no real vote of confidence in her or her administration. The move reflects the balance of power in the legislature, not a consideration of the merits of the allegations. The opposition has vowed to maintain pressure, ensuring that divisions in Philippine society will continue. The Philippines deserves better, and only a full evaluation of the charges against Mrs. Arroyo will permit that.
The latest political crisis in Manila began last year, when audio tapes were released that revealed Mrs. Arroyo talking to an election official and discussing vote counts in the presidential election. The tapes appear to show the president condoning the manipulation of tallies to ensure her election. At first, presidential spokespersons said the tapes were doctored, but Mrs. Arroyo later admitted to telephoning an election official during the vote count — a lack of judgment, no matter what was discussed — and conceded that it was the wrong thing to do, although she denied encouraging him to rig the count. She made no comments on the authenticity of the tapes.
In the ensuing uproar, Mrs. Arroyo asked for the resignation of her Cabinet, although she said that she herself would not step down. Her husband, who has been a lightning rod for controversy for his own business practices, left the country to dampen talk of influence peddling after being accused of accepting bribes from gambling syndicates; her son, a congressman and also charged with accepting bribes, left too, although he recently returned to the Philippines.
The president’s substantial majority in the legislature ensured that any impeachment motion would fail. And last week, members of the Lower House backed a committee report that recommended that the charges be dropped. The opposition failed to get the 79 votes needed to reject the report; only 51 legislators backed an impeachment trial. Predictably, there were charges that the president and her supporters tried to influence the vote with promises of financial assistance or threats of punishment.
The opposition could take the issue to the Supreme Court, but fearing defeat in the courts, they have said they will take to the streets instead. This is in keeping with the tradition of extra-parliamentary protest in the Philippines. Nearly two decades ago, “people power” toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and helped install Mrs. Corazon Aquino — whose husband, a Marcos rival, had been assassinated at Manila’s airport — in the presidential palace. People power also brought down Mrs. Arroyo’s predecessor, President Joseph Estrada, in 2001, after he was accused of taking bribes from gamblers.
While there is unease about Mrs. Arroyo’s behavior — according to one poll, more than half the residents of Manila believe she was tampering with the vote count — only a fraction of them want her to step down and less than 1 percent back yet another “people power” revolution. Reports that only 7,000 people joined protests after the impeachment vote suggest that there is little stomach for another change of government. Former President Aquino joined the demonstrations, but even her presence does not seem to be enough to mobilize protests.
That is good news for Mrs. Arroyo but it is not necessarily good for her country. The result may be stability, but confidence in the administration is badly damaged. The size of the protests reflects growing cynicism about the ability to change the system, not a judgment on Mrs. Arroyo herself. The opposition is leaderless; Mrs. Arroyo’s rival in the presidential election died of cancer last year and even he was something of a figurehead. The Catholic Church, a pillar of any protest movement, has stayed out of the fray.
The Philippines has serious problems and needs leadership. There is a powerful Muslim insurgency and bombs explode all too frequently in the archipelago. There is a widespread belief that politicians are bought and sold; corruption is endemic. That scares off investment, a much-needed boost for the anemic economy.
Mrs. Arroyo knows these problems; she has bold plans to fix them. She wants to amend the constitution and alter the country’s governmental structure. She has said she wants to balance the budget by 2010. Changes will be difficult without the trust of the electorate; her time in office thus far has not bolstered their support; recent developments only make that more difficult.
The president has said she is innocent of the charges against her, but she has denied the country a chance to prove that. If Mrs. Arroyo is indeed being smeared, she should authorize a genuine investigation that will show that. Then she will be in a much stronger position to bring about the reforms her country needs.
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