Manila // The Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, filed nomination papers yesterday to run for Congress in next year's national elections, a move that brought immediate criticism from her political rivals.
She is the first incumbent president in this South East Asian country's history to run for a lower political position. She will be joining four other family members - two sons, a brother-in-law and sister-in-law - running for a seat in the 277-member house. Under the Philippine constitution a president is only allowed to be elected to serve one six-year term, but there is nothing preventing a serving president from running for Congress or the Senate.
Many see the move as an attempt by Mrs Arroyo to deflect an expected avalanche of legal cases alleging massive corruption during her term as president. Legal experts say a seat in Congress will only protect her from libel for anything said under privilege. Others see it as a conspiracy by Mrs Arroyo and her political allies to engineer a constitutional change to scrap the current model, which is based on the US presidential system, for a parliamentary form of government in which Mrs Arroyo would emerge as prime minister. This could only happen if her party wins a majority of seats in both houses of Congress, which appears highly unlikely.
Mrs Arroyo became president in 2001 following the unseating of Joseph Estrada in what he has called a coup by the church, business community and elites. Mrs Arroyo, who was vice president, took over the presidency for the next three years. She stood in the 2004 presidential contest and won in an election marred by alleged massive vote rigging and fraud. Mrs Arroyo said on Monday that she made her decision to stay in government because of the clamour of her supporters in Pampanga. "After much contemplation I realised I am not ready to step down completely from public service."
Her decision to stand has brought indignation from her political opponents who see it as a brazen bid to cling on to power. "If this was out of a desire to serve the people, it would be admirable," Mr Estrada told ABS-CBN television yesterday. "But it is a brazen attempt to stay in power forever." Mr Estrada, a former film star who was sentenced to life for plunder but pardoned by Mrs Arroyo, is seeking a second term as president. His candidacy is legally questionable, but his lawyers say he was illegally removed from office and is entitled to run again.
"I am not surprised. She is still motivated by political survival at all costs," said a senator, Francis Pangilinan, in a posting on his website yesterday. "I recall Senator Joker Arroyo saying that her running for Congress would be demeaning. But to PGMA, [President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo], nothing is demeaning when it comes to political survival. Running for public office as a means to protect one's personal interests has been done countless times in the past by many other politicians. Her decision to run for congress is no different.
"She is desperately looking for a soft landing after 2010. She will win, yes, and she will try her best to use the office to protect herself." Amado Valdez, the dean of the University of the East College of Law, said that once Mrs Arroyo filed her candidacy she lost "all immunity". He also said there was a question of whether she could continue in office until June 30 or step down immediately. Rafael Mariano, an Anakpawis (workers) party-list congressman, said: "After nine years of plunder, lies, deceit, extreme poverty and hunger, extra-judicial killings, abduction, torture, and the worst forms of human rights violations, Mrs Arroyo still has the nerve to run for public office.
"This latest political stunt by Ms Arroyo is absolutely linked to her desperate attempt to attain immunity and the prolongation of the culture of impunity and violence in the country." According to the elections commission, there are 17,943 local and national positions up for grabs next year. So far 62 people have filed their intention to run for president. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org