GMA  READY  TO  CUT  HER  TERM  SHORT

[PHOTO AT LEFT - ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (AND WOMEN): President Arroyo walks with Vice President Noli de Castro as they lead Cabinet members on the way to the Presidential Palace following their meeting at the Malacañang Guest House yesterday. ]

MANILA, July 13, 2005 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo is ready to cut short her term as her "biggest legacy" to the country to accelerate moves to amend the Constitution and change to a parliamentary system of government, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. said yesterday.

De Venecia said Mrs. Arroyo herself raised the possibility of cutting short her six-year term if it would make good her pledge to introduce amendments to the Constitution and change the present system of government, which she claimed had doomed the country to failure.

The Speaker told a news conference at Malacañang that Mrs. Arroyo had promised to push the necessary changes before her term ends in 2010.

"Ever the President, she is truly a stateswoman. She said: ‘If they (critics) want to modify my mandate, if they want to rediscuss my mandate, it has to be by operation of a new constitution and not by the power of a mob in the streets,’" De Venecia said in quoting the President.

"She was very statesmanlike when she said that," De Venecia remarked.

While De Venecia did not disclose when Mrs. Arroyo made the remark, sources said the President delivered the vow on at least two occasions last week at the Palace before the Speaker and former President Fidel Ramos at the height of resignation calls.

Ramos has proposed a constitutional change with elections for a new leader to be held next year.

De Venecia made the statement after personally turning over the proposal made by the standing committee of the Philippine Political Parties Conference to Mrs. Arroyo yesterday.

The summit presented a document calling for amendments to the 1987 Constitution which would be presented before the people in a plebiscite.

Mrs. Arroyo pledged to study the recommendation to shift from the presidential system to a parliamentary form of government, saying there was need for fundamental change.

She told De Venecia that the recommendations would be aired during her State of the Nation Address (SONA) when the 13th Congress opens its Second Regular Session on July 25.

"Over the years, our political system has degenerated to such an extent that it is very difficult to move within the system with hands totally untainted," Mrs. Arroyo said earlier.

She claimed to be the only presidential candidate who ran in the May 2004 elections advocating a parliamentary system of government.

"Our country has been left behind by other countries in the region and our best and brightest and the cream of our youth are voting with their feet to leave the country," she said.

The 17-page proposal was part of a resolution signed by pro-government and opposition parties, whose leaders met earlier at the historic Manila Hotel in Manila to address the crisis sparked by allegations that Mrs. Arroyo cheated in the May 2004 election.

The President told De Venecia, who convened the meeting at Manila Hotel, that she would "study the ideas contained in the manifesto in the manner of a President listening to the pulse of the people."

Mrs. Arroyo, however, gave no timetable or any other details in the proposed transition to a parliamentary government.

"I know this (proposal) will be met with criticism from those who want me to resign from office and cut short the constitutional process," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"But I’d like to appeal to them to listen to the voice of the law... the fundamental law of the land," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo stressed the present political system "that we are all part of has indeed degenerated to the point that it needs fundamental change."

De Venecia, for his part, said a possible "modification" in the length of the President’s term would depend on the transitory provisions of the new Charter.

The House leader noted former President Corazon Aquino’s legacy was the completion of a transition government from the dictatorial regime of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos to the restoration of democracy.

"We believe that the best resolution of the (current) crisis is provided by the present Constitution," De Venecia told the news conference, reading from the resolution.

The parties "oppose coup attempts, rebellions or insurrections" as a means to change the leadership.

Military-backed "people power" revolts toppled two previous presidents in 1986 and 2001, he noted.

Asked if the political parties were in favor of the proposal made by Ramos for parliamentary elections next year, De Venecia said the changes in the Constitution could be "earlier than that or later than that."

He claimed Mrs. Arroyo had already expressed her preference that the necessary changes in the Constitution be carried out by Congress convening itself as a constituent assembly.

The President told a radio address last week that the present political system had all but outlived its use as political interests now came before national interest, as seen in the endless congressional investigations and scandals "in aid of politics and media projection" rather than in aid of legislation.

What about us?

Mrs. Arroyo appears to have weathered the most serious challenge to her rule, after 10 senior members of her government resigned last Friday and demanded that she step down, too.

The calls were echoed by Mrs. Aquino, erstwhile ally Senate President Franklin Drilon, prominent business groups and many academics.

Local officials across the nation, on the other hand, called on Mrs. Arroyo to hang tough.

The Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) led by Bohol Gov. Erico Aumentado pointed out that an overwhelming majority of Filipinos in the countryside still want Mrs. Arroyo to remain in power.

Aumentado said local officials belonging to the 1.5 million-strong ULAP and their constituents "do not give a damn" about the noisy outrage by the opposition and militant groups in Metro Manila demanding the President’s resignation.

"The Philippines does not consist of Metro Manila alone," Aumentado said. "And it has been made clear to us, that our constituents feel deeply insulted that elitist groups in ‘Imperial’ Manila are again conniving to subvert the will of the vast majority of Filipinos in the countryside whose sentiments are being ignored by callous power grabbers who shamelessly feel that they have the exclusive right to tinker with the fate of those outside ‘Imperial’ Manila," he said.

The Bohol governor said a majority of their constituents are disgusted by the actuations of cause-oriented groups and various sectors calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation.

The crisis was triggered by wiretapped audio recordings in which a woman — later admitted to be Mrs. Arroyo — speaks with an election commissioner thought to be Virgilio Garcillano to ensure a one-million-vote victory margin.

Mrs. Arroyo later apologized to the nation for improperly calling the election official before the vote count was completed but denied cheating.

Tenacity

Hanging tough amid attempts to unseat her, Mrs. Arroyo is apparently finding it hard to look for convincing ways out of the crisis.

And unlike in 1986 and 2001, when the military supported the two EDSA people power revolts that toppled presidents, this time the military is staying neutral while the dominant Roman Catholic Church is reluctant to support calls for her resignation.

Her popularity rating slid to 20 percent last month, down from 26 percent in May and 36 percent in March, according to a nationwide survey.

National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said various opposition groups have formed a tactical alliance with the left to force Mrs. Arroyo out of office.

He claimed groups identified with the political opposition and militant groups from the extreme left are also sizing each other up.

"While there are no indications of organization coordination, there is already a natural convergence of objectives," Gonzales said. "One group sees that another is favoring your cause, so you enhance it by doing your own protest actions in concert with the others."

Gonzales warned that communist rebels are also taking advantage of the situation and might resort to violence ahead of the President’s SONA.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, on the other hand, appealed for sobriety and respect of the law before the protesters in Makati, an opposition bailiwick where another rally is scheduled today.

Opposition lawmakers led by San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, on the other hand, are solidifying efforts in the House to sustain the impeachment complaint against Mrs. Arroyo for betraying the public trust.

Mrs. Arroyo has welcomed that route, telling former allies who asked her to step down to "take your grievances to Congress."

"The only mistake that we have committed is to assume that she would resign," came the sheepish confession of Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, member of a faction in the pro-administration Liberal Party, which called for her resignation last week.

On Friday, Mrs. Arroyo’s economic team resigned, her coalition partner the Liberal Party broke away, and Mrs. Aquino, considered an icon of Philippine democracy, as well as several prominent business groups urged her to hand over power to Vice President Noli de Castro.

Former defense secretary Renato de Villa also joined calls for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation.

De Villa claimed the demand for Mrs. Arroyo to vacate the presidency "is simply too strong, too insistent, and too justified to be denied."

However, De Villa rejected the idea of letting the same people rule even as changes were being made in the political system.

He said the present crop of officials, including De Castro and all other government officials, must resign for a fresh start.

Political observers, however, said opponents and critics underestimated the tenacity of Mrs. Arroyo.

The Constitution prescribes resignation or impeachment as legal avenues to presidential succession. But Mrs. Aquino insists society would be divided further by a trial of a sitting president, inviting violence.

De Castro, a former news broadcaster, is immensely popular. But critics say he lacks government experience and his views on running the administration and managing the economy are somewhat of an unknown quantity.

Mrs. Arroyo herself came to power in 2001 after her predecessor Joseph Estrada was ousted in an army-backed "people power" revolt.

Estrada retains substantial support but is on trial for corruption before the Sandiganbayan. Independent polling group Pulse Asia said 30 percent of Filipinos would welcome his being reinstalled as president upon Mrs. Arroyo’s leaving office.

Supporters of another ex-actor, Fernando Poe Jr., defeated by Mrs. Arroyo last year, insist he was cheated. He has since died and they say the presidency should be handed over to his widow, fellow movie icon Susan Roces. – With reports from Cecille Suerte Felipe, Michael Punongbayan, AP, AFP


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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