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Arroyo Survives Latest Challenge

An attempt to impeach an ally of the Philippine president is derailed, averting one crisis but leaving politicians and citizens drained.

November 11, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo survived the latest challenge to her rule Monday as the country's Supreme Court declared that an attempt to impeach an important political ally was unconstitutional and the leaders of both houses of Congress said they were prepared to accept the decision.

"I will abide by the Supreme Court decision," House Speaker Jose de Venecia told a crowded chamber late Monday.

The 13-1 judgment derailed attempts led by Arroyo's political opponents in the House of Representatives to oust highly respected Chief Justice Hilario Davide on charges that he misused public funds. After sitting through the night, the House just before dawn today beat back an attempt by pro-impeachment members to brush aside the court ruling.

The 115-77 vote effectively ended a potentially damaging constitutional crisis. But, together with Saturday's brief takeover of the Manila airport control tower by a distraught former senior public official and July's failed coup attempt, it left the political establishment emotionally drained and the electorate confused and demoralized about Arroyo's inability to control widespread corruption and steer her troubled nation toward economic growth.

Monday's developments are also unlikely to end pressure on Arroyo. Defeated in the Supreme Court and Congress, her opponents vowed to take their battle against her to the streets with a major demonstration later today.

The foes are a diverse collection of supporters of her predecessor, Joseph Estrada: ultra-leftists, right-wing nationalists and some disgruntled former Arroyo allies.

In an hourlong interview on national television Monday night, Arroyo pleaded for warring political factions to drop their differences and work together for the greater national good.

"We need reconciliation, we need unity," she said.

The attempt to remove Davide was the second of its kind against the chief justice, and the court's ruling was based on a constitutional provision that no serving public figure could face impeachment twice within one year. The first attempt was based on charges that he swore Arroyo in as president before Estrada had been legally removed from office.

The country's latest political drama was followed nervously by a nation still reeling from an attack on the Manila airport's control tower early Saturday in what at first seemed to be a possible coup attempt. The assault was carried out by a onetime Arroyo backer, Panfilo Villaruel, who headed the Philippines' Air Transport Office during the 1990s.

In a radio interview after taking over the tower, Villaruel spoke about high-level corruption, denounced the country's political leaders as a group of corrupt do-nothings, and declared himself "the representative of 82 million Filipinos who are crying for help" before he and a former navy lieutenant acting with him were shot dead by Philippine security forces.

Senior members of Arroyo's government described the incident as the act of a deeply troubled individual upset at the rejection of aircraft and helicopter designs he had tried to sell the government.

"We're still investigating, but all indications so far lead us to believe no one else was involved," National Security Advisor Roilo Golez said in an interview.

Although no evidence of a broader plot has surfaced, Arroyo's political adversaries characterized Villaruel's airport assault differently. To them it was the reflection of growing frustration among Filipinos that the country had lost its way.

After Arroyo replaced Estrada nearly three years ago, there was hope the trained economist with a reputation as a smart technocrat would lead the country to prosperity. But she has been unable to stamp out corruption and has struggled to counter the effects of high unemployment, a loss of talent to jobs abroad, a weakening currency and one of the highest per-capita public debts in East Asia.

Villaruel "may have acted on his own, but there was a part of us all that was with him," summed up an army colonel at the country's military headquarters complex here who declined to be identified by name.

Writing in today's edition of the national daily Today, University of the Philippines academic Luis Teodoro likened Villaruel to "the millions of Filipinos ... who feel in their bones that something is dreadfully wrong in this country and that the government is somehow at the center of it.

"Like Villaruel, some of these Filipinos have struck out, often blindly, at a scheme of things they can't quite fully comprehend, but which they know is killing them daily," he wrote.

Experienced congressional politicians agreed that the political turmoil pointed to a far larger crisis that threatened the country's entire democratic system.

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon of the opposition Liberal Democrats said an erosion of political institutions, combined with a string of military coup attempts, has placed the system in jeopardy. Although the military involvement in ousting the country's corrupt President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 was celebrated at the time as a triumph of "people power," Biazon and others have now begun to see it differently.

"That's when we let the genie out of the bottle," he said. "The military now feels it has the right to judge the government and a duty to remove that government if it is deemed not to be performing."

Students of Filipino politics count eight coup attempts since Marcos was removed.

Biazon called for deleting language added to the constitution after 1986 that defines the military's role as "the protector of the people and the state."

In her television interview Monday, Arroyo expressed confidence in the military: "I have faith in the armed forces."

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