The Fading of Gloria

Outgoing Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's gamble to take over as Speaker of the House of Representatives to preserve her power base and protect her from procecution appears to be fading against the magnitude of last Monday's national election landslide by Benigno Aquino III. Aquino won 40 percent of the vote, while his nearest challenger had about 25 percent.

She appears about to be thwarted by traditional Filipino politics, which holds that political parties are meaningless, that no alliance ever lasts, and that elected officials usually follow the winner because that is where the pork barrel is.

Arroyo, who finished her presidency with some of the lowest poll ratings in the country's history, won her 2nd Congressional District seat in Pampanga handily, the first step in her widely anticipated plan to seek the speakership. However, while the votes are still being counted and no results are expected to be announced before May 15 by Comelec, the Philippines election commission, it appears that members of her administration whom she had expected to take into the house as her allies lost their races.

Sixteen members of Arroyo's government, including eight cabinet secretaries, two senators, two governors, four mayors and four family members were lined up for Congressional seats. It isn't known yet how many have lost, but the result appears to be an indication that voters want to turn a page, leaving behind the corruption and stagnation that have dogged the nation during her nine years of rule at Malacañang Palace. According to local media reports, Arroyo is thought to have the loyalty of perhaps 80 to 90 House members, along with the allegiance of an unknown number of so-called party-list candidates who represent special interest groups.

"I don't suppose that realistically the outgoing president will have a strong chance of becoming speaker of the house," Rep. Neptal Gonzales, a member of Noynoy Aquino's Liberal Party, told ABS-CBN Television.

Nonetheless, "the lower house tallies are still coming in and Arroyo still has some cards to play," said Pete Troilo, director of Business Intelligence for the Manila-based Pacific Strategies and Assessments. "Arroyo has a lot of money and Filipinos have short memories so I wouldn't count her out just yet."

The Liberal Party appears likely to push to elect Feliciano Belmonte Jr., who served as speaker in the 11th Congress, to return to the job. Party allegiances in the Philippines are slippery at best and traditionally have shifted with the arrival of a new president. Given the magnitude of Noynoy's victory, and the fact that the outgoing president will no longer have access to the development funds that she poured out as pork to keep her allies in line, observers feel she will be increasingly isolated, especially given the abysmal approval ratings, which showed only 21 percent of the electorate trusted her.

Aquino's next task is to set about undoing some of the last-minute appointments Arroyo made to the Supreme Court, the Armed Forces and the Ombudsman anti-graft court – all major institutions that largely succumbed to the politics of patronage, sacrificing the country's tenuous hold on a democratic system already made perilous by a history of dictatorship, military coup attempts and feudal structures. Her last act, after the election, was to name Renato Corona, her former chief of staff and spokesman, to the Supreme Court over Antonio Carpio, who had thwarted her move to amend the constitution and remove the term limits that are forcing her from office.

Arroyo and Aquino have been political foes for years. The president-elect's mother, Corazon, who is regarded as nearly a saint by the Filipino people, sought to push her from power in 2006 in the wake of widespread allegations of corruption and vote-buying in the 2004 election. He appears to have the support of Jejomar Binay, who staged an unlikely victory over Arroyo's vice presidential running mate Mar Roxas.

Binay was a human rghts lawyer close to the Aquinos and Noynoy's father, Benigno Aquino Jr, prior to Ninoy's murder and made common cause with Cory in the movement to oust Gloria in 2006.

"An Aquino/Binay tandem might be even more intent on going after her than any other conceivable President/Vice-President alignment," Troilo said.

Aquino's next task, observers feel, is to determine whether to prosecute the outgoing president and her husband, Miguel "Mike" Arroyo on a broad series of crimes, election fraud and corruption despite her attempts to insulate herself from prosecution by packing the Supreme Court with her allies. Human rights groups have alleged that as many as 800 leftist sympathizers were gunned down during her presidency when she set out to crack down on the New People;s Army and other leftist groups. Millions of pesos from the country's national fertilizer fund to help farmers were allegedly diverted into her 2004 election campaign. Many reports indicate that she made massive cash donations directly to House members when she was president.

Aquino has about six weeks to form what he called a search committee to look for talent in his cabinet, intending to personally interview all his appointees and ask them to make sacrifices during his six-year term. He said he plans to reduce cabinet positions and government policy consultants and to retain only important national agencies that had bloated the executive branch.

As for his predecessor's past wrongdoings, he said he has a "surplus of talent" from which to choose a commission looking into the matter of whether she can be prosecuted. His lawyers will also have to work out legal mechanisms to reverse a recent Supreme Court ruling – which many say was unconstitutional in the first place if not for the fact that the court was filled with presidential favorites – on midnight appointments, one way of filtering out Arroyo's hand-picked lackeys that she had packed her administration with.

But foremost on his agenda should be the military, which surprised the public even more for staying solid and carrying out support for credible elections. All post-Marcos presidents save one suffered threats of coup attempts, and Aquino will now have to take a balanced approach in dealing with the top brass who were put there by Arroyo for their personal loyalty but who eventually displayed professionalism in the thick of the political fight.

One of Aquino's main advisers is a former defense secretary who had crafted an ambitious reform program desperately needed by the Armed Forces and has yet to be carried through for a military that has been fighting one of the longest-running insurgencies, and seeking a peace process with Muslim secessionists that stalled two years ago.

Aquino said he wants to draft a comprehensive National Security Policy once and for all, saying in a security sector forum that his government "will have to pick up the pieces and resume the quest for peace with vigor and clarity of purpose."

There is one more possible bright spot for Aquino in the next round: other than former president Joseph "Erap" Estrada, his presidential opponents have conceded defeat in a remarkable gesture of sportsmanship, an element that was absent in the messy, redundant electoral process of the past.