President Arroyo is ending her seventh year in office with triumphs and disappointments, her presidential armor seemingly still intact but has already showed signs of trauma.
Mrs. Arroyo survived another turbulent 2008 that is probably stuff of nightmares, from nearly being impeached over charges of large-scale corruption and human rights abuses to facing public unrest over high oil and food prices.
Although there were relentless mass protest actions calling for her to step down, the widely unpopular President was spared this year from any military mutinies and coup threats. The President also reveled in the economy’s continued expansion, her biggest achievement this year, in the face of the global economic downturn.
Tougher tests however lie ahead for the President in the final one and a half years of her presidency as she attempts to banish the specter of a recession in a country where many Filipinos continue to complain about the perennial ills of poverty and corruption.
The President has professed little worry about her legacy or plummeting popularity, promising to focus on the economy and the people.
Presidential Management Staff chief Cerge Remonde said the government endured a “challenging year” in 2008 after being threatened by surging world oil and fuel prices, global economic recession, and political squabbles, and will keep its full attention on the economy and the people, not politics, in 2009.
“While there may be various setbacks for this year, the administration still performed considerably well,” he said.
President Arroyo has been working overtime to avoid the gloom of recession that darkened other countries, even at the extent of discarding government fiscal targets to pour billions of pesos to expand infrastructure and social protection.
While many nations fell into recession, the Philippine domestic economy remained resilient last year, sustaining an economic growth of 4.6 percent albeit much slower than the 7.1 percent in 2007. The buoyant economic growth, widely flaunted by the President, has been attributed to politically unpopular economic reforms, including the 12 percent value-added tax on goods and services.
Ignoring calls for its suspension to ease the burden of consumers, the President staunchly defended the hugely unpopular VAT. Government revenues, she argued, are used to pay the country’s debt, expand social services, and improve infrastructure to boost investment and generate funds for pro-poor programs.
As the people demanded relief from the surging consumer prices, the government rolled out the multibillion-peso program that provided cash doleouts and subsidy programs on power, education, transportation, among others, using revenues from the controversial value added tax. The “Katas ng VAT” program however was largely criticized for providing short-term relief rather than long-term benefits for the people.
The government’s successes on the economic front however did little to boost the President’s public approval ratings or appease critics.
Allegations of corruption surrounding the broadband project between the government and ZTE Corp. of China were revived early this year. The President also had a bitter falling out with her key ally, Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr. after his son, a rival bidder of the botched broadband project, accused administration officials of bribery in the deal.
When corruption charges implicated her own family members, the President defended that none of them are engaged or involved in any government transactions or deals.
The controversial Executive Order 464, which prohibited officials from attending congressional probes, was also thrown out by the President. The move came after Catholic Church leaders demanded for truth in the light of latest allegations of corruptions hounding her administration.
The bribery-tainted broadband project and the P728 million-fertilizer fund scam came to hound the President anew when opposition groups included these in the fourth impeachment complaint filed against her in Congress. The complaint was junked by congressmen.
Adding to the President’s problems this year were the stinging public opposition against Charter change revived by her congressional allies, that spawned speculations she was out to extend her term.
Anti-Charter change sentiments were further fanned when Press Secretary Jesus Dureza prayed for the President’s extension in power during a cabinet meeting. Malacañang scrambled to explain that the President has endorsed fresh moves to amend the Constitution only as far as political and economic reforms, and not any term extension for incumbent officials beyond 2010.
Even though she promised to follow the Constitution and step down in 2010, government critics continue to doubt her sincerity especially since she has turned back her words when she ran for president in 2004.
Intense fighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels in Mindanao also erupted anew this year and further stalled peace talks, after the Supreme Court blocked the signing of a proposed ancestral domain deal due to unconstitutionality.
Upset by the treacherous attacks by rogue Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in restive south, the President recently reconstituted the government peace panel in a bid to jumpstart the staled peace negotiations with the rebel group.
Government peace efforts have shifted from talking to rebels to authentic dialogues with communities following the attacks of rogue MILF commanders in civilian communities in Mindanao. All government engagements with rebel groups would now be limited to the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
“We are committed to pursue peace talks and implement peace agreements which include an enhanced reintegration, rehabilitation and amnesty program for former rebels and development projects aimed at conflict-affected areas,” Remonde said.
Hunger incidence and corruption are up based on recent opinion surveys, which the government has promised to bring down next year.
As disasters accumulated, the approval ratings of President Arroyo further sank this year, earning her the reputation of the least popular president since Marcos on public surveys. She has received many hostile rhetoric from her critics this year, from being called a lame duck President, liar, lucky bitch, to an evil person.
Remonde said the President was not affected by her low performance rating or waning political capital, adding the Chief Executive is building the country’s defenses against the global financial crisis.
“The President does not pay any attention to the political noise generated by her critics, as she remains focused on the immediate needs of the country such as the implementation of pro-poor programs, providing food on every table, jobs generation and economic reforms to provide a better future for the people,” he said.
He explained that the President lasted this long despite attempts to undermine her administration “because she is able to translate economic gains to improved quality of life for the Filipinos.”
“Her social and economic measures have contributed to a better situation of the country compared to neighboring countries in this time of crisis. These accomplishments have strengthened the integrity and credibility of her administration that any attempt to question her leadership remains unsupported,” he said.
The President got a break from vicious name-calling from her opponents when a new potato variety was named after her in Benguet State University. The variety, sourced from the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, was named “Gloria Kamaptengan,” after “mapteng” meaning “good” in Ibaloi and Pangasinan dialects.
The diminutive Mrs. Arroyo was also ranked 41st most powerful woman in the world, a 10-slot improvement from 51st sport, in the Forbes Magazine’s annual list of World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
To escape the edgy political bickering in Metro Manila, the President often retreated to the provinces where she is relatively respected and adored by people, inaugurating new highways, roads, bridges, among others. She also embarked on more than 10 foreign travels this year, mostly to promote the country’s interests on trade and investments, security, as well as the welfare of overseas Filipino workers.
When Democrat candidate Senator Barack Obama won the US presidency last November, the President attempted but failed twice to call the first American Black President to extend her congratulations. A week later, Obama found time in his hectic schedule and called up Mrs. Arroyo in the Palace.
Obama’s apparent snub of President Arroyo was earlier shown when he missed a meeting with the Philippine leader during her visit in Washington DC last June.
Despite her plunging ratings, the President kept most of her cabinet members this year, except for Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye who moved over to the Monetary Board. He was replaced by Presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza while retired military chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. assumed Dureza’s old job.
The other new faces in the cabinet are five defeated administration senatorial candidates when the ban on candidates to join government posts expired in May. They are former Sen. Ralph Recto as socio economic planning secretary, former Sen. Vicente Sotto III as acting chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, former Rep. Prospero Pichay as administrator of Local Water Utilities Authority, former Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson as deputy national security adviser, and former presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor as acting chairman of the Philippine National Railways Corp.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the President is satisfied with the Cabinet’s performance, as he squelched speculations a revamp was in the offing.
Unlike her husband First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo who had a health scare aboard a plane to Peru, the President, a 61-year-old grandmother, had few medical troubles this year. She underwent a number of medical checkups and stress tests, including one after suffering an upset stomach in August.
A devout Catholic, the President claimed her strong faith in God and discipline have kept her looking young and full of energy despite the burdens of being a leader of the nation. She also gets seven hours of sleep, exercises thrice a week, takes vitamins and “heart’s delight” diet of low calorie and low cholesterol, and keeps her “disciplined” daily schedule.
Another development in the First Family was the private simple wedding of the President’s youngest daughter, Evangeline Lourdes, to a nephew of former constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas. The President and the First Gentleman said they look forward to having more grandchildren.
Keeping the economy resilient this year may be its biggest accomplishment this year, Remonde said it will also be its biggest challenge in 2009.
Although some international financial institutions predicted the Philippines will not fall into recession, the government plans to continue to pump prime the economy through investing in infrastructure, supporting local industries and micro-, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), generating jobs, putting money in people’s pockets.
Revenue collection will also be reinforced to ensure that the government shall be able to spend more for its priority programs and maintain prudent levels of deficits and debt.
Remonde said various contingency measures have been put in place for returning overseas Filipino workers who may lose their jobs from the sluggish world economy. Government interventions includes close monitoring of job orders, identification and development of new market niches, expansion of livelihood assistance and business formation program, business counseling and strengthening of reintegration services, and massive skills upgrading and retooling services.
The President will also step up the government’s social welfare programs and Katas ng VAT Projects, including cash assistance familiy beneficiaries, government stores selling low priced food products, food for school program livelihood and emergency work programs, and proper distribution of NFA rice through family access cards.
“The government remains optimistic that the economy shall continue to overcome the effects of the global economic crisis and maintain economic growth. During this troubled time, the role of government is to help insulate the Filipino people from the price shocks and economic pressures,” Remonde said.
With a divided opposition, public exhaustion of political upheavals, and her alliance with the military, legislature, and local officials, the President is so far secure in her mandate. In 2009, she is expected to rush her ambitious 10-point legacy program, which includes fiscal discipline, job generation, wider education access, reconciliation of Edsa forces, before the sun sets on her administration.
Author: Genalyn D. Kabiling
Source: Philippine Star
Date: February 1, 2009