MANILAWill she or won't she run again? With the May 2004 presidential election
less than a year away, the key question is whether President Gloria Arroyo of
the Philippines will reverse her December 2002 announcement that she would not
be a candidate.
Her dilemma encapsulates that of the
nation. Her presidency has not fulfilled the hopes of many of those who
supported the constitutionally dubious overthrow of President Joseph Estrada, a
former movie star widely seen as corrupt and incompetent. Yet the list of 2004
presidential hopefuls makes depressing reading for those seeking lasting
improvement in the way the Philippines is governed.
That dilemma has been underscored by two
recent events. Arroyo's prestige was lifted dramatically by the regal treatment
she received during her state visit to the United States. The visit, the arms
and money from a grateful United States, plus an offensive against the Moro
Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim group fighting for independence on the
southern island of Mindanao, have lifted Arroyo's public standing. As a result,
there is now feverish speculation about her future intentions and calls for her
But there has also been an uncomfortable
reminder of how little the Philippines has progressed, from a usually very
discreet Japanese ambassador. He lashed out at the abysmal law and order
situation in the whole country, which he said was deterring tourism and giving
business executives sleepless nights. He charged the government with making
changes in investment policies that "trapped" Japanese investors, and said huge
amounts of Japanese aid lay unused because of poor local funding or project
While the government has dismissed the
ambassador's statements, they have been supported by the Filipino-Chinese
business community. They also reflect the opinions of a recent Asian Development
Bank report and the unhappy experience of the largest German investor in the
Philippines, which has just written off a $300 million airport investment.
While Manila's economic policies are
sound in principle, their implementation has improved only marginally under
Arroyo. When she said that she would not run in 2004 she undertook to use her
last 18 months in office to avoid politicking and concentrate on action. But in
practice she looks very much the candidate, appearing in telegenic situations
and backing off from confrontations with powerful groups.
Promises of a vigorous policy to reduce
the nation's high birth rate fizzled in the face of opposition from the Catholic
Church. The get-tough policy in Mindanao seems more geared to the electorate and
to military influence than to long-term strategy. The economy, meanwhile, is
doing well enough despite the government, thanks mainly to ever-rising
remittances from Filipinos overseas.
Arroyo could succeed herself by default.
She is known to be malleable and prone to changes of mind. Her own party, Lakas,
has no obvious alternative candidate. Nor does the business elite seem able to
coalesce around anyone else. The front-runner in the opinion polls is Raul Roco,
a competent lawyer with an interest in social issues but lacking a party base
and regarded with suspicion by the business community.
There are suggestions that the nation now
hankers after a "strong leader," like Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of
Thailand - if not a new Marcos. Two prominent contenders are Senator Panfilo
(Ping) Lacson, police chief under Estrada, and Eduardo (Danding) Cojuangco, head
of San Miguel, the nation's largest company. But Lacson acquired an unsavory
human rights reputation and Cojuangco was a major beneficiary of Marcos
Then there are celebrities such as
Senators Noli de Castro and Loren Legarda, both former television personalities,
and Senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., whose father was president in the 1950s.
Some hope that a respected figure such as
Chief Justice Hilario Davide will emerge as an alternative. But the chances are
that name recognition and money will be the deciding factors.
If the opposition unites behind one
candidate, Arroyo would have a tough fight. But if there are several candidates
and she has backing from elite groups, Arroyo's chances of success in 2004 look
much stronger now than they were in December. Elected in her own right, with a
single six-year term to serve, she might even get a grip on government.