Up the creek
Mar 6th 2008 | MANILA
From The Economist print edition
A twist to the usual tale of street protests
ON FEBRUARY 29th several thousand anti-government demonstrators gathered in Manila to demand the resignation of President Gloria Arroyo. So far, so usual. But this time, they were joined by two former presidents, Corazon Aquino and Joseph Estrada, who know something about street protests. Mrs Aquino was made president by the “People Power” uprising of 1986; Mr Estrada was deposed by a similar uprising in 2001. Even by Philippine standards, their presence was unusual.
But this was only a demonstration. Street protests have never toppled a Philippine president without support from the armed forces. The military chiefs have said they support the constitutional order. Officers who have stepped out of line in the recent past have ended up looking more like foolish pranksters than serious threats.
The spur for the protests is the accusation that Mrs Arroyo's political allies—and perhaps her husband—were to receive kickbacks from an allegedly overpriced $329m contract with a Chinese company, ZTE Corp, to build a broadband network connecting government offices. The president cancelled the contract last year after questions arose about its propriety. All those implicated have denied any wrongdoing.
The controversy has persisted because the Senate is holding hearings about the contract. Compelling testimony of corruption in the corridors of power has enthralled the public. But the hearings have so far not put Filipinos in a mood to take to the streets en masse to remove an unpopular president. She was, after all, elected (though previous calls for her resignation were provoked by accusations that the vote was rigged).
It is unlikely that another “People Power” uprising is really what senators want. A number have ambitions to become president themselves in the election due in 2010. If Mrs Arroyo were to be removed by unconstitutional means, that election might not take place. Even if she were impeached and removed from office (which is unlikely, since impeachment proceedings have to be started in the lower house, which is under her control), she would be succeeded by her vice-president, Noli de Castro. He would be eligible to contest the 2010 election, and an incumbent would be much harder to beat.
The hearings allow wannabe presidents to keep themselves in the public eye. But they are learning that the safest way to become president and to remain president is to be elected—a lesson Mrs Arroyo is teaching them.