[PHOTO AT LEFT - PLAYING SANTA: President Arroyo spreads Christmas cheer to wards of the Hospicio de San Jose in Manila yesterday. Photo by VAL RODRIGUEZ]

MANILA, December 24, 2005 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - There are many reasons to celebrate and thank God this Christmas, President Arroyo said yesterday.

"We praise the Lord for our strong peso, which comes from the confidence of the world in the Philippines and the winning excellence of the Filipino," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the peso’s performance recently in the local financial market would show that Filipinos were capable of reaching their dreams.

But to fully achieve change and reach the country’s full potential, Mrs. Arroyo again cited the need to cure the country’s problems, particularly by changing the current form of government from presidential to parliamentary.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said there was no way the "political noise" caused by the six-month opposition campaign to force Mrs. Arroyo from office over vote-rigging allegations could dampen the economy or set back economic recovery efforts.

"We are clearly over the hump as far as political turmoil is concerned. Our tough economic reform agenda is sustained by the continuing strength of the peso, the buoyant stock market and on-track fiscal measures," Bunye said.

Mrs. Arroyo and her family will spend Christmas eve at Malacañang but will be in Baguio City beginning Monday until New Year’s Day, she told Palace reporters in a visit to their Christmas party last Thursday.

The First Family traditionally spends the holidays in Baguio and joins other ordinary Filipinos in attending Mass at Baguio Cathedral and strolling the popular sites there.

Mrs. Arroyo said she had not yet decided when she would return to Manila after the New Year celebration.

Asked about her Christmas wish, Mrs. Arroyo said she did not have any but her New Year’s resolution is to continue with her government streamlining program and make the bureaucracy more efficient.

She asked reporters and the public not to forget the less fortunate this Christmas, especially those who were victimized by floods in the provinces.

Before going to the Malacañang reporters’ party, Mrs. Arroyo held a meeting with officials and ordered speedier efforts to help thousands made homeless by rampaging floods.

This year has been particularly bruising for Mrs. Arroyo, who is fighting opposition allegations that she cheated her way to victory in last year’s presidential election.

The opposition in June released audiotapes of her alleged phone calls to an election official made during the slow presidential vote count in which she purportedly discussed ways to rig the election outcome.

The tapes sparked the worst political crisis to threaten the Arroyo administration.

Mrs. Arroyo later admitted talking to an official that she did not identify but denies she cheated.

She survived an opposition bid to impeach her in September but remains locked in a protracted political battle that is showing no signs of abating.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved