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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek.
The late Macapagal still watches over Arroyo's future.

Is She Ready to Rule?
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has her own troubles too
By ANTONIO LOPEZ Manila

PLUS
Interview: Ex-president Ramos on what Estrada should do


Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is on the move. The Philippine vice president has temporarily shifted residence from her luxury high-rise apartment back to the sprawling house in Makati's tony Forbes Park neighborhood where she grew up. The split-level four-bedroom home sits on a 2,000-square-meter lot, twice the size of the session floor of the Philippine Senate. A large bronze bust of Arroyo's father, the hugely popular late president Diosdado Macapagal, dominates the terrace that overlooks the manicured garden. As Arroyo pursues her bid to succeed scandal-ridden Joseph Estrada as president, the house reminds visitors of her heritage, and her possible destiny. She has been entertaining a steady stream of guests. The house shows that Arroyo belongs to the elite, who have always ruled the country. And it demonstrates that Arroyo has the money to compete in a presidential election, whether the one scheduled for 2004, when Estrada's term ends, or the snap vote Congress is now considering.

As Estrada struggles to save his presidency, Arroyo, 53, is the woman to watch. She had carefully avoided calling for Estrada's resignation since a scandal erupted a few weeks ago, in which provincial governor Luis Singson accused Estrada of taking millions of dollars of illegal gambling proceeds (the president denies the allegation). But last week, Arroyo took off her gloves. "The best political solution," Arroyo told Asiaweek, "is resignation." Why the change of heart? Arroyo has lately run into her own difficulties, with charges that she, too, has been connected to the gambling business. Manila's business leaders seem lukewarm toward her. They worry that she has no vision — after all, they point out, she served under Estrada until recently. They complain about her populist-style politicking and that she relies too much on her father's reputation. Arroyo may realize that if a snap election is called, she would have to face other candidates (including possibly Estrada), with no guarantee of victory.

Yet Arroyo already seems to be preparing for a campaign. If she has to run, Arroyo plans to be ready. The recent visitors at the Macapagal home have included leaders of a host of political parties. After resigning as social welfare secretary in the Estrada cabinet, Arroyo has been busy trying to unite the fractured opposition. She has already forged alliances with former defense secretary Renato de Villa and former Cebu governor Emilio "Lito" OsmeNa, both of whom lost to Estrada in 1998. The three have linked up with the main opposition party, Lakas-NUCD-UMDP. Says Arroyo: "We will speak as one." This week, she flies to Cebu, traditionally an opposition stronghold, where she, de Villa and OsmeNa will determine the line-up of candidates for next May's congressional elections. Says de Villa: "We have all agreed that the person to lead a united movement should be the vice president."

A difficult task for Arroyo will be winning the support of the business community. She will need their cash — it can take tens of millions of dollars to bankroll a presidential candidacy. The vice president, who has a Ph.D in economics, has been trying to woo the business community with her pro-business policies. She vows transparency and a level playing field, to bid out all government contracts, and not to coddle cronies. But prominent businessmen like the Ayalas have yet to come out openly for her. When Arroyo returned Oct. 17 from 11 days abroad, she was warmly received at a welcome-home rally by some 3,000 supporters. No tycoons showed up. One reason the business elite has not been more enthusiastic about Arroyo may be pragmatic. Philippine conglomerates undertake a number of big projects requiring concessions, licensing and permits. Naturally, their owners do not want to antagonize a sitting president. The Ayala group, for example, is still awaiting a contract for a railway connecting their property in the Makati business district to an area south where they have more than 4,000 hectares of residential, commercial and industrial development.

Perhaps the best thing going for Arroyo is that she is generally well-liked. Even at the peak of Estrada's popularity, she consistently scored higher approval ratings than the president. In the end, those are the figures that may count the most, and not how many parties she can unite nor how much money she can raise. Estrada now faces calls to resign from practically the full spectrum of society. Arroyo could one day be president. But nobody seems to think she could solve the deep, systemic problems that have crippled the country's economy. The kindest thing some in the business community will say is that she is not Estrada. Says Romeo Bernardo, a former finance undersecretary: "Arroyo is a vast improvement over the president." Unfortunately, that may not be enough to fix the Philippines.

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