Thousands of protesters yesterday demanded Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo step down in the biggest anti-government rally since allegations surfaced that she fixed last year's election and that her family received kickbacks from gambling.
The government has denied the allegations, saying they were part of a plot to unseat Arroyo. Police nationwide and soldiers in the capital Manila were on full alert against a power grab in a country with a history of coup attempts.
Claims of payoffs to Arroyo's son and a brother-in-law from illegal gambling operators -- and an alleged wiretapped conversation between Arroyo and an election official to fix last year's vote -- come as she battles poverty, rising prices, a fiscal deficit, corruption and the lowest popularity rating since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
In a rare show of solidarity, a wide spectrum of anti-Arroyo groups, including opposition politicians and rival leftist groups, joined forces in yesterday's rally, which was dubbed a "National Day of Mourning." Police estimated that 5,000 people took part in the protest.
"The rally for me can be seen as a measure of how far or how widespread the disgust is for Arroyo and her isolation," said Representative Teddy Casino of the left-wing Bayan Muna party.
Casino said his party wanted Arroyo out of office, but opposed a coup d'etat, a military junta or a "palace coup."
"This is the early stage of the struggle for the eventual regime change that is expected," he said.
However, he said talk of "an imminent downfall is not accurate."
Earlier in the week, a key witness testifying in an ongoing Senate hearing on the illegal numbers game called jueteng claimed she personally handed payoffs to Arroyo's son and brother-in-law, who are both members of the House of Representatives.
The two men have denied the charges. Arroyo's son has filed a libel suit against the witness.
To show she was not protecting her family, Arroyo immediately ordered government investigators to look into the allegations and file charges if warranted, saying her kin were not above the law.
On Friday, the dismissed deputy head of the justice department's investigation agency claimed he was the source of an audio recording that purportedly has Arroyo talking to an election official about fixing last year's election to gain a 1-million-vote margin against her closest rival, Fernando Poe Jr. Poe died in December following a stroke.
Samuel Ong, former deputy director of the National Bureau of Investigation, said that disgruntled military intelligence agents gave him the "mother of all tapes" containing the alleged wiretaps.
Officials said the recording was doctored to show alleged wrongdoing by the president.
"In the first place," Ong said, "our Constitution says that the [Commission on Elections] is an independent constitutional body to ensure peaceful, orderly and honest election. Now here comes somebody outside this constitutional body ... not only asking but directing him to do something."
Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Ong's allegation was "part of a well-orchestrated plot to destabilize the government and eventually replace the president."
"We will not allow democracy to be undermined," he said.
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