Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Arroyo supporters upstage opposition

`UNITY GATHERING' An estimated 120,000 people gathered in Manila's Rizal Park yesterday to back the embattled president as pressure grows for impeachment


Supporters of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo poured into a park in the capital yesterday for a much-needed show of strength that upstaged a recent rally by 40,000 protesters demanding she step down.

Police said about 120,000 people, many from government offices and Christian groups, came to Manila's Rizal Park under hazy skies to back Arroyo in what was billed as a "gathering for peace and unity for the rule of law." That was well short of organizers' goal of 200,000 but still much larger than the 40,000 who gathered for Wednesday's rally in the capital's financial district.

Dozens of buses and colorful jeepneys, some bringing people from adjacent provinces, lined seaside Roxas Boulevard leading to Rizal Park. The atmosphere was festive with drummers and other musicians offering entertainment from the grandstand.

Still, the message was serious.

Banners read "President Arroyo please stay" and "God bless the president and the Philippines."

Steadied by a few key allies, Arroyo has dug in her heels to ride out mass resignations and defections that a week ago appeared to be driving her four-year presidency to a rapid end.

"This is not really a showdown," said Mike Defensor, a close Arroyo ally. "We don't really plan to come here with a show of force to weaken the position of the opposition. More than that, our position is to call on our people for us to reconcile, for them to give the president a chance."

The opposition accuses Arroyo of cheating her way to victory in last year election and her family of corruption. She has denied wrongdoing but now faces the threat of impeachment by Congress, a prospect that worries financial markets.

"It does not matter how many rallied for Arroyo," said Joseph Roxas, president of Eagle Equities in Manila.

"Since the opposition did not muster enough numbers to cause alarm, it has had to shift the battlefield to the impeachment process in Congress," he said.

Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, an Arroyo loyalist, earlier denied reports that city workers were promised 2,000 pesos (US$35) each to attend, fair common way of beefing up rallies in the Philippines.

Arroyo was not expected to attend yesterday's event. But the large crowd in the midst of the crisis will help her reinforce the image of a president focused on running the country and reforming the economy with the support of the people.

But House of Representatives minority leader Francis Escudero called the rally a sign of the government's duplicity. The opposition claimed the government restricted the rally on Wednesday by keeping busloads of opposition supporters from coming to Manila.

"They are now eating their own words," Escudero said. "They said, `Rallies are bad, they are destabilizing and only create trouble,' but now they are doing the same thing."

Arroyo's political enemies concede she is unlikely to be dislodged by marches nowhere near the size or social breadth of "people power" uprisings that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos as dictator in 1986 and Joseph Estrada as president in 2001.

Instead, they are warming to the idea of trying to impeach her in Congress as shifting party loyalties threaten her majorities in both houses.

Another way out of the crisis has been proposed by former president Fidel Ramos, who envisions a parliamentary system after changes to the constitution. Arroyo would stay on as caretaker until elections next year.

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