By Hrvoje Hranjski
The Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — With a sense of entitlement and a life of privilege familiar to a scion of the political elite, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo successfully weathered coup attempts and corruption scandals during her nine years in power.
She once even banished her husband abroad when he became a liability.
Last week, like a common criminal, she was booked and fingerprinted by police on electoral fraud charges and barred from traveling abroad for medical treatment. She could spend the rest of her life in prison if convicted.
Arroyo will be the biggest test of President Benigno Aquino III’s election promise to prosecute corruption, no matter how high, and restore public credibility, as well as investor confidence. With her arrest, Aquino has struck a chord among Filipinos, fed up by a long line of corrupt leaders, starting from Ferdinand Marcos, who epitomized greed and was removed in 1986 by Aquino’s mother, also a president.
“If she’s not guilty, why is she trying to escape?” asked Manila parking attendant Gerry Rimorin. “When she was president, she committed a lot of abuses and now it’s all coming back to her. It’s karma.”
Since Arroyo’s arrest, no demonstrations in her favor have taken place. Media editorials have praised Aquino, and the Arroyo-friendly, coup-prone military has stayed quiet.
“The lesson is clear,” Rimorin said. “I’m happy that now even the almighty can be made to account for their wrongdoing because I’ve always felt that only the poor get to be arrested.”
A court allowed the 64-year-old Arroyo to be detained in an upscale hospital suite, where she’s being treated for a bone ailment, prompting a small protest by left-wing activists who want her locked in a police cell.
“While it is important to be aware of President Benigno Aquino’s class interests, he should be given full credit for attempting to hold former and current government officials accountable for their actions,” said Gerard Finin, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Arroyo was president from 2001 to 2010, and the case against her involves congressional polls in 2007, when she was accused of rigging the results to favor her candidates, so she could keep the majority in parliament. According to the charges, there are witnesses who said Arroyo gave instruction to rig the vote.
Arroyo denies the charges and wants to leave the country for bone treatment she says is unavailable in the Philippines, but the government has blocked her. She has appeared in recent weeks in a neck-and-head brace.
Arroyo’s legal spokesman Raul Lambino said her lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court to temporarily release her while the tribunal determines the legality of the joint Department of Justice and Commission on Elections committee that filed the charge against her in court.
The daughter of a former president, Arroyo is a trained economist and classmate of former U.S. President Bill Clinton at Georgetown University. She entered politics in 1992, winning two subsequent terms as senator and then getting elected as vice president in 1998.
In the Philippines, the vice presidency is an elected post and not a presidential appointment. Because of that law, Arroyo became No. 2 to her rival, President Joseph Estrada, a film actor-turned-politician.
She distanced herself from Estrada after he was accused of corruption in 2000.
Estrada was despised by the influential Roman Catholic bishops for his drinking sessions and womanizing. A non-violent, military-backed people’s revolt toppled Estrada in January 2001, and Arroyo was installed president.
With Estrada gone, Arroyo found herself occupying the Malacanang Palace on the banks of the Pasig River, where she had grown up when her father, President Diosdado Macapagal, held office from 1961 to 1965.
She slept in the same bedroom she had as the president’s teenage daughter and sought out the simple wooden desk that her father used.
In a March 2001 Associated Press interview, Arroyo pledged to lead by example and declared, “We have to work on integrity down the line.”
But murmurs about corruption soon grew around her.
A group of disgruntled young military officers took over an upscale Manila hotel and shopping mall in a 2003 mutiny, demanding Arroyo’s resignation. They accused her of corruption, mismanagement, and failure to stop graft among loyal generals who they said siphoned military funds meant for troops’ bullets and combat boots.
The uprising ended peacefully, and the allegations were investigated, although accusations of military corruption persisted.
Arroyo vowed she would dedicate her remaining years to fixing the ailing economy and publicly declared she would not run in the 2004 elections.
She went back on her word, with disastrous consequences.
Arroyo was accused of using the government’s money and power for her campaign, and was proclaimed the winner with a controversial, narrow margin.
Arroyo lacks charisma. She once told an interviewer, “God wanted me to be president,” and she appears more comfortable speaking English than Tagalog, the language of the masses.
A year after being elected, Arroyo faced her worst crisis when wiretapped recordings of her voice surfaced with her and an election official allegedly discussing a winning margin for her.
Amid more coup rumors and plunging ratings, she went on national TV to say “I am sorry,” but refused to step down and insisted she did not cheat.
Increasingly isolated and aloof, she lurched from one crisis to another, each chipping away at her legitimacy.
She sent her husband, lawyer Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, abroad for a year when he and one of their two sons were implicated in channeling funds from an illegal numbers game, a charge they denied.
In 2006, she declared a state of emergency to stop another looming coup and used her broad powers to crack down on independent newspapers and lock up several opposition politicians.
Also accused in the latest congressional poll fraud case is a former governor of the notoriously corrupt Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines, Andal Ampatuan Sr.
Ampatuan is already on trial for murder in the country’s worst politically motivated massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists and opponents. He was among Arroyo’s allies and after the massacre was expelled from her party.
In another scandal, Arroyo’s husband and a former elections chief were implicated in a Senate hearing of receiving kickbacks for her approval of a multimillion-dollar nationwide broadband contract with China’s ZTE Corp. She later backed out of the deal and Beijing denied any wrongdoing.
In a bid to retain some clout and influence that most Philippine politicians enjoy, Arroyo ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won in her home province in Pampanga.
Just before leaving office, she named almost 1,000 allies to government positions, including her former chief of staff as the Supreme Court chief justice and two more allies as the government graft buster and army chief of staff.
Upon assuming office last June, Aquino replaced the corruption prosecutor and the military chief and locked horns with the chief justice.
As she fights her biggest battle to stay out of jail, Arroyo has increasingly run out of friends in power. (end)