Gloria Loses an Ally In the Philippines

The chances of a corruption case against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo have increased dramatically with an overpowering 212-47 vote in the House of Representatives for the impeachment of Merceditas Gutierrez, the Ombudsman who has deflected a long list of charges against the former president.

The vote also demonstrates the growing power of President Benigno Aquino III, who has vowed to prosecute Arroyo for corruption. The president, who took office last July, will likely be judged on one thing: how he fares in rooting out the corruption left by his predecessor. Getting rid of Gutierrez is a big step in that direction.

While the impeachment measure appeared assured of passage after it was voted out of the justice committee on March 1, the overwhelming vote in the house is a demonstration of the president's newfound clout, and of the waning power of his predecessor, who had been predicted to keep a strong hold on the legislative body. Many in Philippine politics had predicted that Arroyo, once elected to the house from her home district in Pampanga, would rise to become speaker.

In a gamble to rule the house, she persuaded 16 members of her government, including eight cabinet secretaries, two senators, two governors, four mayors and four family members to run for House seats and was thought originally to have the loyalty of perhaps 80 to 90 house members, along with an unknown number of so-called party-list candidates picked to represent special interest groups.

However, there is an iron rule in traditional Filipino politics that political parties are meaningless, that alliances fade quickly and that elected officials follow the winner of the Presidential sweepstakes, because that is where the money is for development and pork.

In addition, Arroyo sought to insulate herself well from prosecution through a long series of midnight appointments. She sought to keep the military loyal to her through the last-minute appointment of her own defense chief. However, he almost immediately resigned after she left office, with Aquino replacing him with his own ally, saying he wanted to clean up corruption in the military, which suffers from astronomical levels of graft and is considered ineffective both against domestic insurgents and in defending the country.

Arroyo also chose Renato C. Corona to head the Philippines Supreme Court to replace former Chief Justice Reynato Puno in defiance of a long-standing law barring such appointments within 60 days of a presidential election.

The court remains packed with Arroyo appointments, 14 of the 15 whom she picked. They have already thwarted Aquino on a number of issues. In December, for instance, the court denied the legality of a truth and corruption commission set up to examine misdeeds in Arroyo's administration.

Aquino called the decision a "temporary setback." But in fact, Aquino himself has done little to prove his anti-corruption cred in the eight months he has been in office, and is earning a growing reputation for inaction. Although he originally supported a Freedom of Information bill when he was a member of the Philippine Senate, he has since backed away from it, saying the media could possible abuse the act by reporting stories based on raw information. The bill wasn't included among Aquino's 23 priority measures which were submitted to the Legislative Executive Development Council.

Apparently in the face of withering opposition from the country's conservative Catholic bishops, he has also backed away from supporting the long-stalled Reproductive Health Bill, which has languished for years in the Legislature. If passed, the bill would provide access to birth control devices and promote artificial family planning methods, something the majority of the country's voters seem to want. But despite supporting the measure as a lawmaker, Aquino has also left it off his list of 23 priority measures.

In addition, Aquino has simply been ineffective on several issues, kowtowing to Beijing by boycotting the Nobel Prize ceremony for imprisoned democracy icon Liu Xiaobo, sending Vice President Jejomar Binay to China to plead for the lives of two convicted drug mules who were due to be shot, and badly mishandling the case in which Hong Kong tourists aboard a commandeered bus were gunned down by a disgruntled police officer. The Philippines also ordered the deportation to China of several alleged Taiwanese swindlers accused of cheating mainland investors in the Philippines, rather than returning the suspects to Taiwan, their country of origin.