Former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pleaded not guilty yesterday to electoral fraud on the first day of a trial seen as a landmark test of the government’s ability to tackle entrenched corruption in the Southeast Asian nation.
Arroyo, a 64-year-old who ruled the Philippines from 2001 to 2010, sat quietly beside her husband and son during the court proceedings, only speaking out loud to confirm her widely expected plea.
“Not guilty,” she told the court, standing from a second row seat behind government prosecutors and her lawyers after charges against her were read.
Arroyo’s trial, which could see her sentenced to life in prison, is central to a pledge by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s to tackle endemic graft that threatens to take the shine off an economic revival and investment rebound in the Philippines.
Aquino is also pushing the Senate impeachment of the country’s Supreme Court chief, Renato Corona, who was installed by Arroyo and is accused of protecting her from investigation. The former president and her allies accuse Aquino of pursuing a political vendetta against her.
The trial could be a source of political friction for months or even years if past high-profile Philippine corruption cases are any guide. The trial of Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph Estrada, lasted six years from 2001 to 2007 before he was convicted of plunder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007. Arroyo pardoned him two weeks later.
The landmark cases come as Aquino rides high approval ratings and pledges to go beyond the usual half-hearted efforts to stamp out corruption that pervades public life, keeping tax revenues low and hurting efforts to alleviate poverty.
The presidential palace said in a statement that the start of the trial brought the Philippines “one step closer towards attaining closure to the many controversies that have hounded our country during the previous administration.”
The court set a preliminary hearing on April 19, which Arroyo is not required to attend. Arroyo, wearing a white suit and neck brace following two spine surgeries last year, smiled and posed for photographers while inside the courtroom.
“She is frustrated,” Jose Miguel Arroyo, her husband, told reporters. “She feels it’s an injustice to her.”
Prosecutors accuse Arroyo of ordering her allies, including those in the country’s election commission, to fix the victory of all her party’s 12 senatorial candidates in a Muslim province in the southern Philippines in 2007 elections. She denies all the charges.