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Philippine Vice President Waits in Wings as Political Drama Unfolds

December 23, 2000|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — If President Joseph Estrada is found guilty of corruption and graft in his ongoing Senate impeachment trial, the Philippines will turn for the second time in nearly 15 years to a woman to lead the nation out of political crisis.

But Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a tough, ambitious politician who would succeed Estrada under the constitution, bears little resemblance to Corazon Aquino, a homemaker cast almost reluctantly into the presidency in 1986 after her husband, activist Benigno S. Aquino Jr., was assassinated and dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos fled in exile.

Arroyo, 53, is dismissed by her critics as a political opportunist and praised by her supporters as a smart, God-fearing leader with populist credentials. She served in the Aquino Cabinet, was twice elected to the Senate and won the vice presidency in 1998 by 7 million votes.

An Arroyo presidency would be unlikely to shake the foundation of national policy. She is pro-business, pro-democracy and a friend of the United States. She supports the Visiting Forces Agreement that Estrada signed with Washington and backs economic reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund.

"One big change I'd like to see," she said in a recent interview, "would be improving the moral standards of government and society. I'd work to eliminate poverty and to restore investor confidence. I'd offer leadership by example. We need to replace the politics of personality with the politics of issues."

Undeniably, though, Arroyo's greatest asset is one of persona: She is the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal, president from 1961 to 1965, and her family is one of the country's most prominent. She was a valedictorian of her high school class and a classmate of President Clinton at Georgetown University in Washington. Though perceived as concerned about the poor, she is very much a part of the elite that, with the exception of Estrada, has always run this Roman Catholic country of more than 70 million--one-third of whom live below the poverty line.

"I am my father's daughter in almost every sense, personally and politically," she said, referring to one of the nation's most respected presidents.

She toes the Roman Catholic Church's line on issues with a political or moral dimension and reads the Bible every morning. Unlike Estrada, a former actor, Arroyo has a firm grasp of economics (and a doctorate in economics from the University of the Philippines) and is known for working long hours and living an unpretentious lifestyle, though surrounded by the trappings of privilege.

"Do what is right, do your best, and let God take care of the rest," she says often.

Arroyo made a brief run for the presidency in 1998 before becoming a candidate for vice president. As is customary, she was not on Estrada's ticket and was elected separately. She disparaged Estrada during the campaign, saying the contest was between a babae and a babaero--between a woman and a womanizer.

Estrada won the presidency in a landslide and broke with tradition by giving his vice president a Cabinet position, as minister of social welfare.

"She is a team player," Estrada said. He once said Arroyo often gave him lechon--roast pig--and joked that his vice president was trying to overdose him with cholesterol so he would suffer a heart attack, enabling her to take his office.

During the first two years of Estrada's presidency, Arroyo played the loyal surrogate. When asked virtually any question, from the state of the economy to the rebellion of Muslims in the nation's southern islands, she would reply: "I have no opinion."

After Estrada was accused in October of receiving more than $10 million skimmed from tobacco taxes and illegal gambling, however, she took the lead in the opposition's call for his resignation. His trial began Dec. 7 and is expected to last at least several weeks.

Arroyo's positions on many issues, from agrarian reform to propping up the peso, are unknown. She has made the business community uneasy by courting the left with calls for raising the minimum wage by 78%, to $8.50 a day, and has unsettled many because of her detractors' charge that she has links to Bong Pineda, the gambling lord of central Luzon island. She dismisses criticism about her being godmother to one of Pineda's children, saying that, as vice president, she is godmother to hundreds of children.

Asked by the Sunday Enquirer newspaper what her greatest fear is, she said, "Rejection." Asked what upsets her, she replied, "Conflict. I like to have peace."

If she becomes president of this impoverished nation with a long history of corruption and political infighting, rejection and conflict are something she will see plenty of.

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