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From the March 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 3)

Asia

The Philippines: Arroyo Bows Out

Marites N. Sison, World Press Review correspondent, Manila, the Philippines

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announces she will not run in the 2004 elections. Her announcement came on Dec. 30, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Philippine national hero Dr. José Rizal, who is pictured in the monument behind her (Photo: AFP).
When, on Dec. 30, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced that she would not run in the 2004 elections, she stunned the entire nation. A politician with a reputation as a fence-sitter, who made no secret of her desire for another term, Arroyo probably even surprised herself.

Her renunciation of political ambition, according to political analyst Amando Doronila in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Dec. 31), “is the equivalent of the abdication of the throne in the British monarchy.” So uncharacteristic was Arroyo’s decision that even her toughest critics felt compelled to define it as a “supreme sacrifice.” That she timed her announcement for Dec. 30, the anniversary of the martyrdom of national hero Dr. José Rizal, gave her move more resonance.

For Filipinos long weary of bad governance and perpetually in search of a leader to inspire them and move the country out of its Third World status, Arroyo’s announcement was a breath of fresh air. Wrote columnist Randy David in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan. 4), “By declaring she will not run, [Arroyo] has done what is unthinkable in Philippine politics: Withdraw proudly when it is no longer possible to run with dignity.”  Doronila added, “No Filipino president has ever climbed down from office voluntarily.” Nor, until Arroyo, had any taken responsibility for acts that have contributed to the country’s overwhelming sense of gloom and doom.

So why did she quit? “If I were to run, it would require a major political effort,” Arroyo told the nation. She said that politics had already “poisoned” the air and that “the 2004 election may well go down in history as among our most bitterly contested elections ever. This is because of the deep social and political division that we now have.” She said she worried that “sincere efforts to launch programs will run the risk of being derailed by political fighting leading up to the elections.”

Her critics, while lauding her move, said that she threw in the towel early because she knew she was not going to win, and they point to recent polls, which show her a poor fourth among possible presidential contenders. Corruption scandals involving her husband and close advisers, an unstable political climate, and hard economic times sure to be aggravated by an impending war against Iraq led even her own advisers to admit that “only a miracle” could have helped her win.

By declaring her intention to spend her final 16 months doing what she should have been doing all along—resuscitating the economy, establishing peace and order, and putting a lid on corruption—Arroyo has raised high expectations. “She finally put her money where her mouth is, although there are those who would say two years too late,” wrote Paulynn Sicam in CyberDyaryo (Jan. 3). “The year and half she has left is plenty of time for the president to do the right things and be the president we need her to be.”

Columnist Rene Bas of The Manila Times (Jan. 3) added: “What must be done to solve the problems of this country is not a mystery. Everyone knows that the root of the failure to solve the country’s problems is the lack of political will [that] comes from the fear of losing public approval—and eventually losing in the coming elections. Now, the president is freed from that fear.”

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