- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

President Obama is welcoming Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at the White House today. This gives Mr. Obama the opportunity to tell Mrs. Arroyo that the United States is concerned about the deteriorating rule of law in the archipelago and that his administration is committed to constitutional government in Manila.

The Philippines is Asia’s oldest democracy, but its democratic institutions are shaky. A June 11 poll by the Manila-based Social Weather Stations reported that just 31 percent of Filipinos believe Mrs. Arroyo plans to step down when her term expires in May 2010. The Philippine constitution limits a president to one six-year term. Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in Congress are pushing for constitutional change to create a parliament in which she could serve as prime minister and thus stay in power indefinitely as the nation’s chief executive.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Sen. Manuel “Mar” Roxas, a leading candidate to become president next year if elections are held, explained that parliamentary change threatens his country’s democratic institutions because the governing system would be altered to suit one person’s political ambition. “There is no question that President Arroyo is behind efforts to pervert the law and attempts to prolong her hold on the office,” he said. “Her two sons and a brother-in-law in the Congress have been leading the effort to dump the constitution so she may remain in power.”

Mr. Roxas, who served in the Cabinet during Mrs. Arroyo’s first term and is the grandson of the first president of the independent Philippines, lived in exile in the United States during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In those years, he came to admire the stability of America even in times of crisis. “The real success of America is in the devotion to the rule of law and the individual American’s respect for the law of rules,” he said. “Whether you were the president like Richard Nixon or one of the wealthiest like Bernie Madoff, if you break the rules eventually you will fall.”

Mr. Roxas emphasized the importance of the law limiting the time Philippine presidents can stay in office. The term limit was enshrined in the constitution to prevent too much power from accumulating in the hands of one person over a long period of time. After 20 years of Marcos rule — during which martial law was declared, Congress was padlocked and civil liberties were suspended — Filipinos decided six years provided enough time for a president to enact an agenda without becoming too entrenched in power.

By the time Mrs. Arroyo’s term expires next year, she will have been in office 10 years. During this time, extrajudicial killings have run rampant, as Elaine Pearson explains on the facing page. Mrs. Arroyo came to power during a military-backed revolt that ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001. In deference to the six-year term limit, Mrs. Arroyo originally vowed not to run for president after serving the remaining four years of Mr. Estrada’s term. She broke that promise. In 2004, she won a scandal-plagued election in which she was recorded telling the national election commissioner how large her margin of victory should be.

The United States looked the other way when Marcos consolidated power at the expense of Philippine democracy. This was deemed expedient at the time because of the need to maintain an anti-communist ally in Manila during the Cold War. In today’s meeting with President Arroyo, President Obama should make clear that America won’t look the other way again.

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