Protests Mar Key Speech by Filipino President
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Opposition lawmakers in the Philippines have begun impeachment proceedings against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. She's accused of vote-rigging during last year's presidential election. The impeachment complaint was filed on the same day President Arroyo delivered her annual state of the nation address. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:
As President Arroyo prepared for yesterday's speech, the largest anti-Arroyo demonstration yet was taking place just down the road.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
SULLIVAN: Police say an estimated 25,000 people took part in the demonstration. Organizers say the number was closer to 80,000. The protesters carried signs demanding that the president resign. Fifty-eight-year-old businessman Rolando Dante(ph) says he is new to political protests but thought it important to be here to express his anger at President Arroyo.
Mr. ROLANDO DANTE (Businessman): I'll tell you this. My first time in my life to participate in this kind of rally, as I believe this is not a government elected by the Filipino people. She had stolen the votes of the Filipino people. She cannot be trusted. That's all I know. She cannot be trusted.
SULLIVAN: The opposition campaign has been steadily gaining strength in the past few weeks fueled by the resignation of several Cabinet members who then called on the president to resign. Former President Corazon Aquino and some church leaders have also said President Arroyo should step down.
Arroyo has now admitted to and apologized for speaking with an election official during last year's presidential vote count, but she says she did not attempt to influence that count and she has resisted calls to resign. In her state of the nation address, she made no direct reference to the opposition demands nor the impeachment motion filed earlier in the day, but she did say that the current political system is deeply and perhaps irrevocably flawed.
President GLORIA MACAPAGAL ARROYO (Philippines): Over the years, our political system has degenerated to the extent that it's difficult for anyone to make any headway, yet keep his hands clean. Perhaps we have strained the present political system to its final limit. It's time to change the way that government is done, and the sooner the better.
(Soundbite of applause)
SULLIVAN: Arroyo suggested constitutional amendments to create a parliamentary system to replace the presidential form of government currently in place. She also called for devolution of power from the center to local governments. Both ideas are politically popular and may help defuse the political crisis that has frustrated many ordinary Filipinos and spooked investors. At the very least, they may provide the opportunity for President Arroyo to make a graceful exit from power. Former President Fidel Ramos has suggested holding new elections as early as May, but President Arroyo gave no timetable for her proposed changes in her speech. Senator Panfilo Lacson, who ran against Arroyo in last year's election, says it's not the system that needs changing. He spoke in a local ABS-CBN television network.
Senator PANFILO LACSON: Let's put it this way. There's an analogy. If a driver wrecks the car, shall we replace the car or the driver? There's something very wrong with the driver.
SULLIVAN: The opposition vows to continue its efforts to unseat President Arroyo. The impeachment motion filed yesterday now goes before a house committee, which has 60 days to decide whether to send it on to the senate.
President Arroyo's political allies have vowed to block the motion, but any such effort, says political analyst Manuel Quezon III, must be handled carefully if Arroyo is to avoid a repeat of the people power protests that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and, in 2001, President Joseph Estrada.
Mr. MANUEL QUEZON III (Political Analyst): The president has been lucky so far in that the people who have an experience in kicking out presidents are staying home because the alternatives are pretty bad even compared to her, but the moment that the process seems to be being used like a political football, it may get the middle class and our professional sectors a bit too ticked off and they might decide to add their voice to the protest.
SULLIVAN: If that happens, President Arroyo may not get a chance to finish her term let alone preside over the changes she proposed during her state of the nation address.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Manila.
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