CHA-CHA  IN  2005

[President Arroyo, flanked by Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Jose de Venecia, flashes a wide smile in response to a rousing round of applause during her state of the nation address yesterday at the Batasang Pambansa complex in Commonwealth, Quezon City. Photo by Revoli Cortez]

MANILA,  July 27, 2004 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva  -  "The time for change is well past due. This time, let me say, let’s just do it."

Trying to put an Iraqi hostage crisis behind her, President Arroyo asked Congress yesterday to start the process of amending the Constitution next year to shift to a parliamentary form of government as part of her agenda to ease the country’s wrenching poverty.

In her first State of the Nation Address at the opening of the 13th Congress yesterday since her victory in the bitterly contested May 10 election, Mrs. Arroyo rallied Filipinos with a renewed call for national unity and political bipartisanship to help solve the nation’s numerous problems.

"We made a headstart in the last three years. We must take bolder steps in the next six," she told a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives at the tighly guarded Batasang Pambansa complex in Quezon City.

Mrs. Arroyo fleshed out plans for economic reforms — the focus of her address — aimed at easing the massive poverty that has forced nearly one out of every 10 Filipinos to seek work overseas.

She asked Congress for speedy passage of administration-backed bills that she said were necessary for the country’s economic recovery.

Mrs. Arroyo received her loudest applause from legislators when she called for Charter change (Cha-cha) next year.

By shifting to a parliamentary form of government from the current US-style presidential system, Mrs. Arroyo hopes to speed up the legislative process and pass crucial laws, including those designed to address the government’s chronic budget deficit.

"Once we have proved to our people that we have done what we can within the present structure of government, we can move on to changing the system to one that enhances our freedom and flexibility to do more. I expect that by next year, Congress will start reconsidering resolutions for Charter change," Mrs. Arroyo said, eliciting a standing ovation.

Many legislators who favor this move say it will save time and money in getting reforms enacted, make elected officials more accountable to the public and allow for more continuity in government.

The idea has already been raised in Congress last year, but it was not fully deliberated. The Senate disagrees with the House on how and when to amend the Constitution.

The Philippines has a US-style of government with a president and two chambers of Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

This requires bills pushed by the administration to go through a lengthy legislative process in both chambers.

Mrs. Arroyo opened her 40-minute speech by defiantly rejecting criticism of her decision to pull out the Philippines’ small troop contingent in Iraq ahead of schedule to save truck driver Angelo de la Cruz from execution by Islamic militants.

"I cannot apologize for being a protector of my people," Mrs. Arroyo said to applause. "Sacrificing Angelo de la Cruz would have been a pointless provocation. It could have put the lives of 1.5 million Filipinos in the Mideast at risk by making them a part of the war."

Her retreat from Iraq showed "every Filipino, no matter where he is; you have a government… that cares. Your life is held more dearly than international acclaim. And you have a president who is your friend."

Her decision was also meant to maintain national unity, which Mrs. Arroyo underscored as crucial to the country’s economic recovery efforts.

"We must seize the unity we have attained... and save our economy ... put it back in order before it finds itself beyond hope of repair," she said in her speech, interrupted by applause 34 times.

The United States, Australia and other allies have sharply criticized Arroyo’s pullout decision, saying it encouraged more kidnappings in Iraq and broke the Philippines’ commitment to the US-led coalition there.

Citing the Philippines’ active role in international affairs in the past, Mrs. Arroyo reiterated her government’s commitment to the US-led global war on terror.

"I did not sacrifice policy to save a human life. I applied policy for that purpose. The Philippines has no policy that demands sacrifice of human lives."

In saving De la Cruz’s life, Mrs. Arroyo insisted she was following her top policy priority: the safety of eight million Filipino overseas workers who drive the Philippine economy with money they send home.

Five reform packages

Renewing her inaugural promise to ease the plight of the poor, Mrs. Arroyo presented five "reform packages" aimed at creating about six million to 10 million jobs in the next six years, attracting foreign investment, fighting corruption, improving education and making the country less dependent on foreign energy.

Top priorities include tackling the budget deficit — with a heavy focus on cracking down on tax evaders and official corruption — and improving the educational system.

She promised a "lean and mean" bureaucracy, saying that she had already abolished 80 agencies supervised by the Office of the President, and she plans to abolish 30 more.

To further trim bureaucratic fat, government workers would be encouraged to seek early retirement and provided a "silver parachute" or retirement packages.

"We will downsize the government, motivate excess employees to become entrepreneurs," she said, adding that reforms will hit the wealthy harder than the poor.

She also urged an end to bitter political divisions that have dogged the country and scared away foreign investors.

Her main election challenger, popular actor Fernando Poe Jr., has refused to concede defeat, and his supporters have warned that another people power revolt is possible, similar to the uprisings that toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada, Mrs. Arroyo’s predecessor, in 2001.

"I do not ask for unprincipled support because it will not hold," Mrs. Arroyo said. "I do ask for an end to unprincipled obstructionism because that always succeeds in defeating our best efforts."

She stressed that "hardship and injustice are truly the barriers to progress, but those who incite the poor to cause chaos are those who destroy our future."

"Is there something about that goal we cannot all agree on? Is there a reason we cannot all work together?"

Mrs. Arroyo asked for bipartisanship to help the struggling economy recover and ease the plight of the poor.

"I do not want a honeymoon period after which we can forget the country and go after each other again. I want a marriage, not of convenience, but of conviction across the spectrum of parties and groups encompassing the range of intelligent political, religious and economic groups."

Tough decisions

Mrs. Arroyo indicated that more hard times loom before things get better for Filipinos.

"Tough decisions will have to be made. It’s going to be tough love from here on," she said. "Those with more must sacrifice more. Those with less are already living lives of sacrifice."

Her administration’s solutions to the country’s problems, Mrs. Arroyo said, "require toughness on the part of government, cooperation on the part of business, patience on the part of our people, and active support on the part of Congress."

"We must bear the pain and share the pain to enjoy the gain together," she said, adding that her administration’s solutions "require profound, even personal, changes. Politicians will need to focus on the job at hand rather than on their prospect of re-election," she said.

"Our most urgent problem is the budget deficit," Mrs. Arroyo warned, saying this could drive away investments, hurt job growth and reduce the government’s ability to set up much-needed infrastructure.

To address this, her administration would undertake reforms that would "raise or save P100 billion," she said. Mrs. Arroyo asked lawmakers to pass eight revenue measures that would raise another P80 billion.

She also called on Congress to speedily pass a law on privatizing state-owned electric power assets, which she said was necessary to spread electrical service throughout the archipelago and avoid a return to the chronic power shortages of the 1980s.

As part of Mrs. Arroyo’s ongoing campaign on corruption, Congress also was asked to pass a bill giving the Office of the Ombudsman more powers and make it as strong as Hong Kong’s Independent Commission against Corruption.

"I have shown that government does care even for a single Filipino life. Now we must show that we care for the rest of the Filipino people, especially the weakest among us," Mrs. Arroyo said.

But it is still far from clear whether politicians are ready to tackle the country’s problems with renewed urgency, pushing aside the bickering and bad blood that has lingered since Mrs. Arroyo replaced the scandal-tainted Estrada.

Although Arroyo allies won a majority in the Senate and the House, that does not guarantee an end to opposition to reforms by vested interests that has frustrated investors in the past. — With Rocel Felix, AFP, AP, Reuters

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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