The Aquino-Arroyo Contest Heats Up

The bloodhounds appear to be sniffing closer to former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom the current president, Benigno S. Aquino III, has vowed to put in jail on corruption charges.

Whether they will track her down remains problematical, given the Filipino culture of impunity. Arroyo announced earlier this week that she was to enter St. Luke’s Medical Center in Metro Manila on July 28 for what was described as a “risky” operation to correct a pinched nerve in her spine. And, despite the fact that Aquino appears intent in getting her behind bars, the Malacañang presidential palace asked the public to offer prayers for Mrs. Arroyo’s recovery.

Five plunder charges have been filed against the 64-year-old former president, who gambled that her election to the Philippine House of Representatives for the Second District in Pampanga would allow her to use her considerable wealth to control the body and insulate her from prosecution.

Among the charges filed against Arroyo are that her administration didn’t remit P72 million in capital gains taxes collected from the 2007 sale of the Iloilo Airport and that P530 million had been diverted from the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration to boost her presidential campaign in 2004. The latest filed against her involves allegations of misuse of P325 million in intelligence funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

In early July, the Philippines was rocked by allegations that Arroyo had delivered cash to leaders of the Roman Catholic Church as well as half a dozen Pajero SUVs for church leaders. The cash was delivered, it was alleged, when church officials were meeting to discuss Arroyo’s impeachment in 2006 over charges of having rigged her election as president. The church apologized and offered to return the vehicles.

Slowly, over the last year, Arroyo’s defenses have been whittled away. Her big loss was the resignation to avoid impeachment by Merceditas Gutierrez, the former Ombudsman, who had deflected a long series of charges against the former president and her husband, Miguel Arroyo.

However, it has long been a truism in Philippine politics that few people ever are sent to jail for corruption. Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, was impeached and forced from office in 2001 after charges of plunder were launched against him although some critics say he met his downfall not because he was a crook but because he wasn’t a member of the Filipino elite, and that he had embarrassed them.

In any case, Estrada was sentenced in 2007 to what amounted to life imprisonment, but was later pardoned by Arroyo and ended up running again for president against Aquino. Likewise, despite the fact that Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were to have believed to have stolen billions of dollars from the state, eventually after Ferdinand’s death Imelda returned to the Philippines, ran for office and is now in the country’s Senate.

Unlike Estrada, Arroyo is a member of the Philippines’ elite families, as is Aquino. If she were actually to be arrested, let alone convicted, that would make a sea change in the structure of Filipino society and politics.

If anything, President Aquino has been criticized for vindictiveness and ignoring his duties in going after Arroyo with such zeal. So far, however, despite a year of targeting Arroyo’s allies and former officials, the government has been unable to prosecute any of them. Among those allies, besides Garcia, is former Representative Prospero Pichay Jr, who was dismissed from the ombudsman’s office for what was described as “grave misconduct” for his involvement in acquiring a controlling stake in a bank.

Also under fire are former Undersecretary of Agriculture Luis Lorenzo, ex-Undersecretary Joselyn Bolante, former Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera and Mark Jalandoni, also a former assistant ombudsman.

Suspicions arose immediately that the decision to enter the hospital for back surgery was a ploy by the Arroyon camp to get sympathy. But, Raul Lambino, her spokesman, told The Inquirer, the charges are taking their toll.

“It adds to the stress that she is bearing,” he told The Inquirer. “Nonstop accusations affect the health of any person.”

Lambino called the charges nothing more than “statements coming from supposed witnesses who, we know, are being induced by those orchestrating the action. We don’t worry about the legal aspect because we know there is no solid evidence against her.”

He complained that Arroyo is “losing the public relations war because we don’t have the resources. The government has the Senate, House, Ombudsman, and even a friendly media, to support its position,” he said.

Arroyo, he said, “won’t take things sitting down because it’s her constitutional right to defend herself. She will face all her accusers squarely in the proper forum.”