By Hrvoje Hranjski
The Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, faced with the prospect of civil unrest unless she steps down at the end of her term, vowed Monday to not extend her time in office.
In her final state of the nation address, Arroyo defended her record during her turbulent eight and a half years in power and assured lawmakers she would not lift term limits set by the constitution.
“I have never expressed the desire to extend myself beyond my term,” Arroyo said. “At the end of this speech, I shall step down from this stage … but not from the presidency. My term does not end until next year.”
She also said she will defend democracy when threatened by violence in her last months in power — a clear warning to anyone plotting to remove her by force.
The 62-year-old U.S.-trained economist has survived four coup attempts and four impeachment bids since 2001. Her opponents have accused her of maneuvering to extend her six-year term either by amending the country’s 1987 constitution to lift term limits or by imposing martial law.
A president in the Philippines serves just one six-year term, but Arroyo, a former vice president, served part of another term after replacing Joseph Estrada, who was deposed in 2001.
Riot police on Monday used trucks, barbed wire, and shipping containers to block more than 10,000 people who braved the rain to protest outside the House of Representatives, where Arroyo gave her annual speech. Protest leaders warned Arroyo of public unrest if she clings to power.
“Ms. Arroyo’s political maneuvers … to perpetuate herself in power will surely face the people’s wrath,” said leftist Rep. Rafael Mariano, who boycotted Arroyo’s speech and joined the protesters.
Opposition Rep. Roilo Golez, Arroyo’s former national security adviser, said the president’s promise not to extend her stay in office “may not be as categorical as some people would want it, but it sounded like [a] goodbye.”
U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney also said Arroyo’s address “sounded like a final” speech in Congress.
Left-wing activist and lawmaker Satur Ocampo, however, said Arroyo failed to ask her congressional allies to stop efforts to amend the constitution to extend her term. “Such uncertainty will continue to fuel protests,” he said.
The rowdy demonstrators set on fire a huge effigy of Arroyo, who was depicted as a decomposing figure in a red dress atop a military tank labeled, “Gloria Forever.” A huge streamer read, “Gloria, you’re history.” Eleven priests in white cassocks held letters that formed the phrase, “Enough of GMA,” Arroyo’s initials.
In her speech, Arroyo said she was the first Southeast Asian leader invited to the White House for a meeting Thursday with President Barack Obama.
On the agenda will be security issues and terrorism, Arroyo said. U.S. troops have been training Filipino soldiers battling Al Qaeda-linked militants in the southern Philippines.
Arroyo also said her government’s fiscal measures protected the Philippine economy from the global financial meltdown, claiming sustained growth and nearing a balanced budget. She also pointed to advances in education, promotion of next year’s automated elections, improvements in infrastructure, and initiating fresh peace bids with Muslim and communist rebels.
Rosario Guzman, an economist with Ibon Foundation Inc. which researches socio-economic issues, said most of Arroyo’s claims were untrue.
The country’s budget deficit is huge while education and infrastructure remains inadequate. The Philippines, which depends heavily on exports and remittances from millions of Filipinos working overseas to fuel its economy, also remains vulnerable to the effects of the global economic crisis, Guzman said. ♦
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.