- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

MANILA — Yesterday’s confirmation by the Philippine Congress of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as winner of the May 10 presidential election gives her a six-year mandate to tackle the country’s many problems.

“I acknowledge this event with a sense of national triumph and personal humility,” an elated Mrs. Arroyo told reporters after Senate President Franklin Drilon and House of Representatives Speaker Jose de Veneica raised her hands in victory to cheers from the public gallery.

“To my detractors, I appeal for unity. To my supporters, I appeal for an open mind. This is a time for forgiveness and letting go of the past,” she said.

Mrs. Arroyo, 57, is scheduled to take the oath of office on Wednesday. However it remained uncertain whether opposition candidate Fernando Poe, who had charged the voting was tainted by widespread fraud and irregularities, would challenge the result before the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement welcoming Mrs. Arroyo’s confirmed victory, saying “we congratulate all the winners of the May 10 elections.”

Mrs. Arroyo, a U.S.-educated economist and a product of the Philippines’ wealthy elite, also called on the archipelago’s 84 million people to put the bitterness of the election campaign behind them.

Victory in the May election gave Mrs. Arroyo her first clear presidential mandate. She was installed after a popular uprising in 2001 that toppled her predecessor, film star Joseph Estrada, now in detention on corruption charges.

Mrs. Arroyo campaigned on a promise to create 1 million jobs every year, reduce electricity rates and medicine prices, and increase funding for small businesses.

But analysts say she faces an array of challenges, from a ballooning budget deficit to coup plots that could chase her out of the Malacanang Palace if she fails to unite the fragmented country.

“She does not have a strong mandate because she won with a slim majority. So she would have to play footsie with all sectors,” said political analyst Antonio Abaya, head of the Foundation for Transparency and Public Accountability.

“She’ll manage to muddle her way through the next six years, but she cannot make unpopular decisions because some sectors will complain,” he said.

Mrs. Arroyo also will have to “tread a narrow path” in prosecuting Mr. Estrada and the family of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos on corruption charges because “they command potential troublemakers who can drive her from Malacanang,” Mr. Abaya said.

[A Manila judge issued a 20-day restraining order yesterday against the screening of a documentary film about former first lady Imelda Marcos after she charged it would damage her image. Hearings on the injunction are to begin Thursday, the court said.

[The dictator’s widow argued the documentary would cause her “extreme and irreparable injury,” despite reports she cooperated in the making of the film. It won first prize for documentary cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival and has been shown in New York.

[Marcos and his family were accused of stealing more than $5 billion from government coffers during his rule, which was ended by a popular revolt in 1986. Mrs. Marcos was allowed to return home after her husband died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. Some Marcos offspring have since been elected to Congress and a governorship.]

ING Financial Group said Mrs. Arroyo is in a good position to drive her legislative agenda if she can rise above opposition charges of fraud.

“She could use her mandate to take measures to improve the public finances,” ING said in an advisory, noting that the budget deficit of $1.37 billion in the first five months of the year was “not comforting.”

The May 10 elections were marked by widespread cheating at local levels and with 150 election-related deaths, making it the most violent since the 1986 Marcos ouster.

Mr. Poe’s camp complained of what it called a “criminal conspiracy” by Mrs. Arroyo and her allies in Congress to defraud the voters. It argued that Congress blocked attempts to question vote tallies from several provinces where there was reputed fraud.

Mrs. Arroyo has warned she will crack down on “adventurist plots” — a reference to rumors of coup attempts and unrest.

Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita, meanwhile, said communist insurgents were trying to link up with opposition figures to destabilize Mrs. Arroyo, but he expressed optimism the opposition would reject such advances.

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