SEPTEMBER 4, 2006 (STAR) They call her tough, clever, opportunistic or just plain lucky, but her opponents know better than to underestimate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is carving out a reputation as a true political survivor.

The Philippine president, one of Washington’s strongest backers in the war on terror, has been the target of constant coup rumors since she was swept into office in January 2001 by the country’s second "people power" revolt. Now she has just performed another escape act by fending off a second impeachment attempt.

The late-August victory prevented a potentially explosive trial in the Senate — an opposition stronghold — on allegations of vote-rigging, corruption, human rights abuses and violations of the Constitution. As a result, she has gained an aura of political invincibility, immune from the opposition’s best shots while she manages a never-ending string of crises, including natural disasters, terror attacks and other emergencies.

Despite plummeting poll ratings, the former economics professor and one-time college pal of future President Bill Clinton at Georgetown University, has shown a knack for cutting deals and bending rules, even the Constitution.

"She works hard, she’s a fighter," said Rep. Roilo Golez, Mrs. Arroyo’s former national security adviser who has switched to the opposition. "She really fights to the point of going over the edge."

Her critics claim she has gone too far in trying to squelch dissonant voices, and the Supreme Court generally agreed when it ruled that she illegally imposed a weeklong state of emergency and other measures to quash a coup plot last February that allegedly involved the military, communist rebels and shadowy financial backers.

The ruling didn’t much matter. Mrs. Arroyo, the 59-year-old daughter of the late president Diosdado Macapagal, already had sent her message by cracking down on an unfriendly newspaper and getting arrest warrants for several alleged coup plotters. Any momentum that they might have gained was long gone by the time the court ruled.

Two impeachment moves were hastily killed off by the overwhelming dominance of her supporters in the House of Representatives, ensuring the allegations wouldn’t make it to trial in the Senate.

With a one-year ban on filing another complaint, the President now has breathing room ahead of local and congressional elections in May 2007.

Any major opposition gains seem unlikely in that voting, however; Mrs. Arroyo’s Lakas-CMD party is generally popular, particularly outside Metro Manila — a strength that won her a six-year term in 2004 despite losing the vote in the sprawling capital.

The President’s troubles started almost immediately after she was sworn in to replace Joseph Estrada, the action film star-turned-politician who fled Malacañang in January 2001 amid mass protests over his alleged corruption in office.

While disgraced, Estrada retained support, particularly among the urban poor. His arrest three months later sparked days of protest that culminated in a bloody but unsuccessful attempt to storm the Palace.

Street protests continue and the opposition has vowed to maintain pressure on Arroyo, but the public is growing apathetic and Arroyo skillfully works the political establishment.

"She knows how to distribute favors and how to cut deals," said Alex Magno, a political science professor at the state-run University of Philippines who is regarded as pro-Arroyo.

"She’s like Jekyll and Hyde. She’s an astute economist and an astute politician. The two things don’t go together usually," Magno said.

Mrs. Arroyo’s legislative record is mixed. She pushed through a value-added tax against strong opposition and the economy has benefited, soothing the middle class. She has put in long hours and courted the urban poor. But an anti-terrorism bill and the national budget have been casualties of Congress’ constant distractions over the impeachment bids, with spending on infrastructure and education suffering most.

Her political position was strengthened by the death of the opposition’s main candidate in the 2004 election, movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., just months after the vote, and no unifying voice has emerged to rally her opponents.

"The people want a face. There are many leaders who are eligible but no one comes forward. We admit it’s our weakness," said opposition spokesman Pateros-Taguig Rep. Allan Peter Cayetano.

Also dead is charismatic Roman Catholic Jaime Cardinal Sin, who played key roles in the first people power revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and the second mass uprising against Estrada.

Growing up in the Palace helped prepare Mrs. Arroyo for anything, even jousting with the no-holds-barred Philippine media.

A reporter once asked the President at a news conference how much sex she was getting. The married mother of three barely paused before retorting: "Plenty."

She has also shown deftness in complicated crises. She obtained the release of truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, appeasing his kidnappers in Iraq by withdrawing the Philippines’ small military contingent a month earlier than planned. The decision was applauded at home, and she got away with only brief criticism from Washington and other allies.

The latest crisis was over allegations that she conspired to fix the 2004 election that she won by a million votes. The President admitted she shouldn’t have talked with an elections commissioner during the protracted ballot count, but claimed she didn’t influence the results.

She has been hospitalized twice in recent months and there are rumors of a liver problem.

"She’s actually overconfident," Magno said. "She’s like Tiger Woods in some ways. You know that when Tiger Woods leads in the first two days, it’s almost sure that he’ll win the tournament."

But in a country with a history of instability since democracy replaced the Marcos dictatorship 20 years ago, anything can happen — a political scandal one day, a natural disaster the next, such as the mudslide that buried a village on the island of Leyte in February, killing more than 1,000 people.

"We have a system that’s designed to feed on scandals. We don’t know what will blow up next," said Magno. "Even if you have fire extinguishers in every corner, you still have to be ready for the unexpected."

And political survival may not equate to success for the Philippines. With four years left in her term, she has shown more skill at stamping out the political fires than putting the nation on firm path for economic progress.

"We won’t have the ability to do long-term planning and long-term execution," Magno said. "Gloria will win but all of us will lose in the long run." — AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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