- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

CEBU, Philippines Her predecessor insists he's still the real president. Muslim bandits are running rings around her soldiers. And nearly everyone seems to think she's too preoccupied with an election that's two years away.
But as Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo prepares to celebrate the first anniversary on Sunday of the day she muscled her way into office, a majority of Filipinos seem to agree on one thing: Their country is better off today than it was a year ago.
"You have to give her passing marks," said Alex Magno, a political analyst. "She's been able to restore confidence in the economy, provide a level of predictability in the government and get institutions working.
"And she's willing to put in 18 hours a day," he added. "That's a big change from the former president" Joseph Estrada, the former film actor who was swept from office on Jan. 20 last year as thousands marched on his palace, fearing the Phillippines Senate would vote to acquit him in an impeachment trial for massive corruption.
Mrs. Arroyo, his vice president, was immediately sworn in the same day George W. Bush was inaugurated as president of the United States.
While Mr. Bush, son of a former American president, had to endure a five-week ordeal over contested election results, Mrs. Arroyo, 54, daughter of the late Philippines President Diosdado Macapagal, had a decidedly more tumultuous journey. The diminutive, Georgetown University-educated economist was thrust into her role with no clear mandate as she serves out the final three years of the Estrada term.
"She's limited, in a way, because she came to power by extra-constitutional means," said Joel Rocamora, director of the Institute for Popular Democracy.
"She's done reasonably well, especially with the economy. But she's really just another traditional politician. The Philippines needs someone willing to tackle corruption and address basic reforms."
Mrs. Arroyo acknowledges that she's had a rocky start.
She assumed power after the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Estrada now in jail and on trial for the capital charge of "economic plunder" had vacated his office. But Mr. Estrada, who remains popular among the poor, still has political friends who have worked to undermine Mrs. Arroyo. Pro-Estrada forces stormed Malacanang Palace last May in a rebellion that was put down by the military and the national police.
She faces other potent challenges as well.
A Muslim guerrilla group in the south, the Abu Sayyaf, beheaded one American hostage last June and has been holding two other Americans for more than eight months. The chaos in the south and the kidnappings of foreign businessmen, as well as wealthy Chinese-Filipinos in Manila, the Philippines capital, have tarnished the country's international image, chasing away hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourism and investments.
Even Mrs. Arroyo admits that it would be foolish to call her first year as president a good one. But she takes pride in having generated 3.3 percent economic growth in 2001, when many neighboring countries began slipping into recession. And she promises to do more.
"Our No. 1 challenge next year is the perception of peace and order," she told a national television audience in a year-end appearance. "Everybody is saying our macroeconomic policy is very good, we should just take care of perceptions on peace and order."
On the international front, Mrs. Arroyo's unflinching stand with Mr. Bush in his war on terrorism makes her Washington's strongest ally in Southeast Asia.
Her support has garnered more than $4 billion in direct aid and pledged investments. It also has brought U.S. soldiers back to the Philippines, where they are advising local troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf.
Even critics like Mr. Rocamora concede that Mrs. Arroyo's anti-terrorism stand is supported by the majority of Filipinos. But he says that her popularity and prospects to win a term in her own right in 2004 will be decided by domestic concerns.
To that end, the president has made a few populist decisions, such as continuing subsidies for housing and freezing increases on privately operated toll roads, that might run counter to her economic instincts.
But those issues are likely to shore up her support among poor voters who supported Mr. Estrada despite what many believe is overwhelming evidence that he directed and benefited from corruption on a vast scale.
While Mrs. Arroyo would seem poised to be a formidable candidate if she can keep the economy moving, she is constantly fending off charges that she has already started the 2004 campaign.
"Her supposed desire to serve the country is overwhelmed and obscured by her stronger desire to win in 2004," said Salvador Enriquez Jr., a close aide of former President Fidel V. Ramos. "The 2004 election is far away, yet she's all propaganda."
Mr. Ramos, widely credited with getting the country's economy back on track in the mid-1990s, has said he does not plan to run for president again. And while he supported Mrs. Arroyo's ascension to power last year, he has sent mixed signals lately about where he stands now.

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