Caught on tape discussing her reelection with an election official, and with her husband allegedly involved in a gambling scam, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is in political hot water and may not finish her term. Ten members of Arroyo's Cabinet, including key members of her economic team, recently resigned from their posts, urging that Arroyo follow their lead and put an end to the economic and political turmoil plaguing the country. The opposition in the Philippine Congress has already filed a motion to impeach Arroyo, which will be debated when Congress reassembles at the end of July.
Manila's descent into political chaos presents the United States with three major concerns:
Despite these concerns, however, there seems little chance Arroyo will be successfully impeached. Political observers believe that Arroyo supporters in the House have sufficient strength to block an impeachment. Although her popularity has hit rock bottom, and is the lowest of any Philippine president ever, her detractors are not taking to the streets to oust her through public protests in the same numbers as they did for Marcos in 1986 or her predecessor, Estrada, in 2001.
Vice President Noli de Castro, Arroyo's would-be successor, has loyally promoted Arroyo's version of economic development and her close cooperation with China, which suggests that there will be little departure from the current policy direction if he takes over the presidency. De Castro is widely seen as an intellectual lightweight and political novice. The opposition sees him as just as bad as Arroyo and routinely demands both Arroyo and de Castro resign.
The good news is that the scandal has forced both the Philippine Congress and the President to begin the process of reforming the Philippine constitution. President Arroyo's July 25 State of -the Nation address is expected to call for a constitutional convention. It's about time. The post-Marcos constitution is overly detailed and includes numerous restrictions that retard economic development. Furthermore, it established an election process that created a disincentive for Senate lawmakers to participate in the legislative process.
Expectations are that the constitution will be modified through a convention or a constituent assembly. The President and the Senate are expected to favor a convention. The House wants a constituent assembly, mostly because it would be cheaper.
Whether Arroyo stays or goes, efforts to encourage economic development and fight the war on terrorism in the Philippines are weakening. The United States has long been devoted to promoting both of these agendas, but Filipinos will view any American involvement in the current political crisis as meddling. Therefore, U.S. efforts to help should advance the process without crossing the boundaries of Philippine sovereignty, responsibility, and leadership:
The Philippines is a treaty ally of the U.S., an important link in the U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism, and potentially an important trading partner. It is in America's interest that the current political crisis pass without damaging U.S.-Philippine relations.
Dana R. Dillon is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. Ji Hye Shin, Research Assistant in the Asian Studies Center, contributed to this paper.