gma:  fighting  a  waste  of  time

[Photo at left - I’M GAME: With new Senate President Manuel Villar (left) and Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. behind her, President Arroyo addresses the nation at the joint opening of Congress yesterday. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, JULY 25, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica and Paolo Romero - In her sixth address to the nation since assuming office in 2001, a confident President Arroyo urged her opponents yesterday to join hands with her, saying she intended to finish her term and fighting was a "waste of time."

Delivering her annual State of the Nation Address before a joint session of Congress, Mrs. Arroyo steered clear of divisive political issues hounding her for the past year brought about by accusations of rigging the vote in the 2004 presidential race.

"For those who want to pick up old fights, we’re game," she said to loud applause. "But what a waste of time. Why not join hands instead? Join hands in the biggest challenge of all, where we all win or we all lose the battle for the survival and progress of our one and only country," the President said.

She unveiled a massive spending program to build or upgrade at least 20 airports as well as roads, railways, bridges, ports and ferry services, water facilities and irrigation projects that are aimed at establishing economic "super-regions" to spur development.

Mrs. Arroyo focused on the bright economic outlook rather than allegations of vote-rigging and corruption that have hounded her.

"I am not here to talk about politics, I am here to talk about what people want," she said in her hour-long address that was interrupted with applause after nearly every sentence.

"Surely there must be a better way to do politics so that those who lose elections do not make the country pay for their frustrated ambition," Mrs. Arroyo said in a jab at the opposition as it prepares a fresh impeachment bid.

"There must be a better way so that those who win the nation’s mandate can work without delay and whimsical obstruction," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said her spending initiatives would be tailored to boost the competitiveness of four key areas of the country.

Agribusiness would be promoted in the northern Philippines and the southern region of Mindanao, tourism in the central islands that welcome half the country’s foreign tourists, and lower electricity costs and cheaper food for Manila and the surrounding industrial belt.

She explained that the objective of her economic recovery plan is to "invest in the natural advantages and natural resources of each section of our nation so that when harnessed together, the major economic regions of the nation are larger than the sum of its parts."

"Because of our economic reforms, we now have the funds to address social inequity and economic disparity," she said, referring to key tax legislation passed in the previous two years.

"Now we can fund our medium-term public investment program," promising that successful economic reform will cure social divisions and injustice in the Philippines.

"We have achieved record revenue collections, we are lining up corrupt officials to face the consequences of their misdeeds," she said, adding the Philippines has "finally earned the respect of the international community after serious and viable stake for our fiscal discipline and billions of pesos in annual interest savings that are now going into necessary public investments."

Skirts legitimacy issue

Ten months ahead of mid-term elections set for July 2007, Mrs. Arroyo was in a triumphant mood after surviving an impeachment attempt last year over allegations she stole the May 2004 presidential election.

Political foes, including a number of influential Roman Catholic bishops, have filed a fresh impeachment complaint on nearly the same charges.

The House of Representatives must tackle the complaint in upcoming sessions, but a defiant Mrs. Arroyo smiled and appeared unperturbed and radiant in her an elegant coral red gown.

To press her point, Mrs. Arroyo cited the successes of boxing champ Manny Pacquiao, the Philippines’ victory in last year’s Southeast Asian Games and other Filipinos who gave honor to the country with their achievements.

"Our people compete and win every day in every imaginable job throughout the world. Individually, we’ve taken the world on and won; together, we must take on the challenge of creating a new, peaceful, humane and competitive nation and prevail," she said.

"After three years, eleven months, and six days, I shall relinquish the presidency, with much if not all that I have outlined completed. I do not want it said then that, in the end, I defeated my enemies. I would rather have it said that all of us, you and I, friends and foes today, achieved together a country progressive, prosperous and united."

Beyond the economic focus of the speech, Mrs. Arroyo said peace talks with Muslim separatists brokered by neighboring Malaysia should yield a negotiated settlement soon.

"We should reap dividends in resources invested in agribusiness, not aggression," she said.

She also vowed to end what she called "the law of oppression" imposed by communist guerrillas elsewhere in the country.

After shelving peace talks with the left in 2004, Mrs. Arroyo wants to rid the area around the capital of guerrilla influence within two years, and has pledged to give the military and police more resources to get the job done.

"We now have the funds to stamp out terrorism and lawless violence," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo also made a fresh pitch for amending the Constitution, which she said created "most prohibitive red tape" that was hindering business in the Philippines.

She said last year she wanted to remove provisions of the Constitution that bar foreign investment in many poorly developed sectors of the country’s economy, but her campaign has not gained much headway.

"We need constitutional change to bring our rules of investment into the new millennium."

Mrs. Arroyo also condemned the spate of killings of left-leaning activists that the left blames on her administration. "In the harshest possible terms I condemn political killings. We together stopped judicial executions with the abolition of the death penalty. We urge witnesses to come forward. Together we will stop extrajudicial executions."

The economy is forecast to grow six percent this year, but economists say it needs to be growing at least seven percent over seven years to make a dent on poverty, which afflicts four in 10 Filipinos.

Cash remittances by the large overseas Filipino workforce have also grown steadily, helping underpin the economy. May transfers alone rose 27.05 percent from April to $1.1 billion.

University of the Philippines economist Benjamin Diokno said he doubted the government had the financial wherewithal to carry out the massive public spending program laid out by Mrs. Arroyo.

"This will cost a lot of money – half a trillion pesos at least," he told local television, noting that Congress had yet to pass the 2006 national budget due to bickering between the administration and the opposition.

A recent poll suggested Mrs. Arroyo remains the Philippines’ least popular leader, with almost half of those questioned dissatisfied with her performance. Another survey showed about a quarter of those polled didn’t believe Mrs. Arroyo would be truthful in her speech.

"One thing is sure: people have had enough of politics, they are tired of it. And so is the President," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said. "The people want to know where the next job is coming from. The President will tell them."

Former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in massive protests in 2001 and is being tried for corruption, delivered his own taped address yesterday, saying, "the true state of the nation is a house divided, corrupted and in complete disarray."

"My sense is she is still trying to govern," said Noel Morada from the University of the Philippines. "The bigger picture is there are so many challenges that she’ll have to face."

Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, a staunch Arroyo ally, said the address was the "most inspiring ever delivered to Filipinos for it promises development, development and more development for the country."

Staying power

Up to 16,000 police and soldiers were deployed around the Batasan Pambansa, facing about 10,000 left-wing protesters armed with placards and streamers denouncing Mrs. Arroyo and calling for her ouster.

Classes and work in government offices were suspended due to strong rains brought by Typhoon "Glenda," but anti-Arroyo groups braved the storm for street protests.

Protesters burned an effigy of Mrs. Arroyo, and many carried umbrellas as heavy rains threatened to dampen their street rally plans.

Philippine National Police chief Director General Oscar Calderon said police would "exercise maximum tolerance" in dealing with protesters.

Metro Manila police chief Director Vidal Querol said checkpoints were set up in strategic locations to intercept the possible flow of guns and explosives to disturb the event.

Earlier this month, security officials arrested several fugitive renegade military officers of the Magdalo group who allegedly planned to seize the legislature, take lawmakers hostage and declare a revolutionary government to oust Mrs. Arroyo.

Mrs. Arroyo weathered an alleged coup plot by elements of the military and the political left that forced her to declare a state of emergency for a week in late February.

The annual address before a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives is used to set the policy agenda for the next 12 months, and usually includes mention of priority legislation the chief executive wants enacted.

By focusing on the numbers, the 58 year-old leader is seeking to turn a fresh leaf on a turbulent 12 months.

After a year in which she survived an acrimonious impeachment attempt, Mrs. Arroyo appears to be in a stronger position than ever, defying expectations of pundits who thought she would be ousted soon after charges were raised.

The impeachment effort foundered in the House after the opposition failed to muster the 78 required votes to send the case to trial in the Senate.

Many of the prime movers of last year’s impeachment bid, backed by a string of renegade Roman Catholic bishops, are not giving up and have launched a fresh complaint that the House is obligated to address in the first few sessions.

But Mrs. Arroyo again rode her luck earlier this month when the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines refused to endorse their colleagues’ bid to impeach her.

Last year’s political battle sidetracked the government’s legislative agenda, and Congress failed to pass a 2006 national budget, among other things. — With Christina Mendez, Mike Frialde, AFP, AP

Roll call of allies at SONA The Philippine Star 07/25/2006

A roll-call of sorts and active audience participation became President Arroyo’s new tools to keep people from growing bored and dozing off during her State of the Nation Address (SONA) yesterday.

The President mapped out her plans for spurring further development in the Philippines by creating six super-regions that she believes will usher in a better economy amid a "feel-good" atmosphere that was highlighted by the President’s recognition of the accomplishments of Filipinos who have brought home the bacon, as well as the presentation of Filipinos who have benefited from the programs of the government.

The 11 senators who attended yesterday’s SONA were Senate President Manny Villar and Senators Francis Pangilinan, Juan Flavier, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Pia Cayetano, Rodolfo Biazon, Mar Roxas, Dick Gordon, Ralph Recto, Lito Lapid and Ramon "Bong" Revilla.

Also there were Filipinos who have been hailed as the "people’s champions": World super-featherweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, whose grit in the boxing ring has endeared him to the people; three of four intrepid mountaineers who raced up the sheer slopes of world’s highest mountain to plant the Philippine flag at the summit of Mt. Everest — Romeo Garduce, Leo Oracion and Erwin Emata; some members of the Philippine Team that gave the country its first ever championship in the Southeast Asian Games last year and; Miss Tourism Queen International Justine Gabionza, whose name was added just last week to the list of Filipinas who have won world titles for their beauty, charm and grace.

These Filipinos were hailed by the President in her SONA for the honor and glory they have brought the country with their stunning achievements.

When the President asked them to stand and be recognized by a joint session of Congress, they did so to several strong and extended rounds of applause, a first in the normally somber tradition of the SONA.

Presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor earlier said the presence of these champions and other guests who made the SONA an "interactive" and participatory speech was the product of consultations among the President’s staff, who wanted a lively and accessible delivery of the SONA.

Among the other VIPs who attended the SONA were Vice President Noli de Castro, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, former President Fidel Ramos and Papal Nuncio Archbishop Fernando Filoni, along with members of the Cabinet and the diplomatic corps.

Defensor said the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied the President’s speech was designed to underscore Mrs. Arroyo’s message using a visual context.

The citizens whom the Mrs. Arroyo presented included a call center agent named Lyn with whom she had coffee on Labor Day, a rebel returnee and other government program beneficiaries.

Smiling, the President presented Lyn, "a new college graduate, told me: ‘Now I don’t have to leave the country in order to help my family. Salamat po (Thank you ma’am.’ I was so touched, Lyn, by your comments." At this, Lyn stood up and waved to the gallery.

When the President spoke of her plan to extend the flagship San Roque Multi-purpose Dam, Ramos smiled, clapped and gave her his signature "thumbs up" sign of approval.

Mrs. Arroyo also recognized rebel returnee Ama Balunggay and his grandson, Jacob, who benefited from the agrarian reform program and have received a land title from the government after quitting the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army.

"We have great people," the President said after naming members of the House and local government officials in her speech. "We have honest students and honest cops. We have scaled the heights of Mt. Everest, dominated the SEA Games, we have won international beauty titles and, of course, punched our way to triumph in the boxing world."

"Our people compete and win every day in every imaginable job throughout the world," she added. "Individually, we’ve taken the world on and won. Together, we must take on the challenge of creating a new, peaceful, humane and competitive nation and prevail."

The President also praised former Northern Luzon Command area commander and new Army chief Maj. Gen. Romeo Tolentino, who is now a farmer of jatropha, a new crop from a source of alternative and renewable diesel.

She also praised De Castro for his work on the government’s housing projects and the relocation of informal settlers. — Delon Porcalla, Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved