Philippines' Arroyo Consolidates Power

To an extraordinary degree, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is seeking to lock up the House of Representatives by packing it with former members of her administration, family members and other allies, according to a new report by the Manila-based Pacific Strategies and Assessments, clearing the path for her to become a powerful House Speaker.

"If there was ever any doubt, it is now clear that Arroyo is absolutely intent on consolidating and perpetuating her power by shifting it from the executive to the legislative branch," the report said. "Brazen and shameless are the two words that come to mind."

The extent to which Arroyo is agglomerating power in the House and extending her tentacles through her allies into government itself may well set up a monumental power struggle with the next president, whoever that may be. It is difficult to believe any of the top four candidates for the presidency – Benigno Aquino III, Manuel Villar, Joseph Estrada or her ally, Gilbert Teodoro, would allow the presidency to be neutered from the House of Representatives.

However, as the report points out, a 9-1 Supreme Court decision on March 17 empowers Arroyo to name a new chief justice when the sitting chief justice retires in June after the election – despite a constitutional ban on appointments before and after elections. She is likely to appoint her former chief of staff and spokesman, Renato Corona, skipping over the next in line, Antonio Carpio, who in the past has gone against her in the court. She has also been naming wide range of other allies and cronies to permanent government posts as well, including the country's defense chief.

Dogged by a long series of political scandals and allegations of outright corruption on her own part and that of her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, Arroyo remains singularly unpopular to Filipinos. She reportedly is terrified of being indicted when she leaves office. A December opinion poll by the respected Pulse Asia found that only 21 percent of Filipinos approved of her nationwide and 51 percent outright disapproved of her. She is barred by the Constitution from running again for the Presidency.

Instead, she has filed to run in the 2nd Congressional District in her home province of Pampanga. She has made plain her plan to move from the presidency to the house and to consolidate state power in the speakership, which she fully intends to occupy. Last year she vainly attempted to engineer a constitutional convention to switch the Philippines government from a presidential system to a parliamentary one in which the president would be a figurehead and the prime minister – head of the House of Representatives – would wield governmental power.

The report details 16 members of Arroyo's government, including eight cabinet secretaries, two senators, two governors, four mayors and four family members who are running for the House in the May 10 national election.

Under the house's complicated and unwieldy system, 229 single-member constituencies elect one member each in a so-called first-past-the-post arrangement in which the candidate with the highest number of votes wins. Another 57 seats are held by so-called party lists are made up of representatives of various interest groups elected at large hinging on the party receiving at least 2 to 6 percent of the national vote total.

Arroyo's Lakas Kampi-CMD now controls 141 of the 286 House seats. With only 144 required for a simple majority, Arroyo is easily within striking distance and, according to numerous sources in Manila, she is using her vast fortune to make sure she controls the house.

In addition to the cabinet and other government officials who have joined her in running for house seats, the report names another 11 palace-backed party list groups seeking seats. The PSA report says that, of the 187 party-list groups accredited to run in the May 11 polls, at least 30 to40 are backed by the administration. The report cites a 2006 memo from the Office of External Affairs requesting funding for five more party-list groups that would help the administration garner more support in the house and rid the Congress of so-called "left-leaning" groups that are there now.

Among those running for the party list seats are her son, Juan Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo, the likely nominee of a group that supposedly represents transport groups and security guards. "Almost needless to say, Mikey has no experience in either sector."

While there is considerable alarm in Manila over Arroyo's plans to build a massive force in the house to change the system of government, many others are skeptical that she could pull off such a change. They point out that several times she sought to get constitutional change off the ground during her presidency and was thwarted, partly by public antagonism, and partly because both the Supreme Court and the Senate refused to go along with the plan. At one point, she attempted to push through a constitutional convention in the House alone without the Senate's approval, but she was forced to back off.

If she was unable to pull it off during her presidency, the skeptics say, it is unlikely she could pull it off from a position of diminished power in the House. At the same time, it is questionable whether any of the candidates likely to be elected president would be interested in voluntarily ceding power to a powerful prime minister and fading to becoming a figurehead. The presidency controls considerably more clout than the house speaker. In addition, Arroyo has concentrated all of her funding on the House and none on the Senate, most of whom remain either neutral or outright hostile to her although the Senate president, Juan Ponce Enrile, is a close ally..