Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, faced with the prospect of civil unrest unless she steps down at the end of her term, has vowed not to try to extend her time in office.
In her final state of the nation address on Monday, Arroyo defended her record during her turbulent eight-and-a-half years in power and assured lawmakers she would not lift term limits set by the Constitution.
“I have never expressed the desire to extend myself beyond my term,” Arroyo said. “At the end of this speech I shall step down from this stage ... but not from the presidency. My term does not end until next year.”
She also said she will defend democracy when threatened by violence in her last months in power — a clear warning to anyone plotting to remove her by force.
The 62-year-old US-trained economist has survived four coup attempts and four impeachment bids since 2001.
Her opponents have accused her of maneuvering to extend her six-year term either by amending the country’s 1987 Constitution to lift term limits or by imposing martial law.
A Philippine president is limited to one six-year term, but Arroyo, a former vice president, served part of another term after succeeding Joseph Estrada, who was deposed in a 2001 military-backed revolt on corruption charges.
Riot police on Monday used trucks, barbed wire and shipping containers to block more than 10,000 people who braved the rain to protest outside the House of Representatives, where Arroyo gave her hour-long annual speech. Protest leaders warned Arroyo of public unrest if she clings to power.
“Ms. Arroyo’s political maneuvers ... to perpetuate herself in power will surely face the people’s wrath,” said Representative Rafael Mariano, who boycotted Arroyo’s speech and joined the protesters.
Representative Roilo Golez, Arroyo’s former national security adviser but now an opposition memeber, said the president’s promise not to extend her stay in office “may not be as categorical as some people would want it, but it sounded like goodbye.”
US Ambassador Kristie Kenney also said Arroyo’s address “sounded like a final” speech in Congress.
Representative Satur Ocampo, however, said Arroyo failed to ask her congressional allies to stop efforts to amend the Constitution to extend her term.
“Such uncertainty will continue to fuel protests,” he said.
The rowdy demonstrators set on fire a huge effigy of Arroyo, who was depicted as a decomposing figure in a red dress atop a military tank labeled “Gloria Forever.” A huge streamer read, “Gloria, you’re history” and 11 priests clad in white cassocks held letters that formed the phrase, “Enough of GMA,” Arroyo’s initials.
In her speech, Arroyo said she was the first Southeast Asian leader invited to the White House for a meeting tomorrow with US President Barack Obama. On the agenda will be security issues and terrorism, she said.
US troops have been training Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaeda-linked militants in the southern Philippines.
Arroyo also said her government’s fiscal measures protected the economy from the global financial meltdown, resulting in sustained growth over 33 quarters and getting close to a balanced budget. She also pointed to advances in education, promotion of next year’s automated elections, improvements in infrastructure and initiating fresh peace bids with Muslim and communist rebels.