Philippines gets set for the Gloria days

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the pint-sized President of the Philippines, is said to be a talented ballroom dancer.

She cannot afford to miss a single step in her task of staving off the economic and social crisis facing the country and its 75 million people.

It has emerged that the budget deficit left behind by the corrupt buffoon Joseph Estrada ball-ooned to 190 billion pesos (US3.85 billion).

That will come as a considerable shock to the IMF, which has been drip feeding a US$1.4 billion loan to the Philippines on the understanding that the books would be balanced by 2003.

There is now no hope of that. Newly installed finance secretary Alberto Romulo says simply: “I don’t know where we will get the money.”

The IMF has pledged support for the new administration. But it cannot hand over a blank cheque.

The financial markets have given President Arroyo the thumbs up. The peso bounced from 55 to the US dollar to 47¢ and the punctured stock market has been slightly reinflated.

However, wouldn’t you know, the economy is heavily dependent on electronics, especially mobile phones.

One of the success stories of recent years was the establishment of the PEZA (Philippines Economic Zone Authority).

This initiative attracted foreign investors, taking advantage of tax breaks, and an abundant and skilled work-force, who have contributed almost half the country’s total exports.

The Philippines is more vulnerable to a severe US slowdown than any other economy in Asia. Tentative predictions of 3.8 per cent GDP growth this year would be crunched in a hard landing.

Mrs Arroyo has a lot of goodwill and charisma to burn.

The 53year-old mother of three looked about half that age at her inauguration.

She was a school girl when her father Diosdado Macapagal held the presidency from 1961 to 1965 only to be replaced by the despot Ferdinand Marcos.

Her qualifications for the job are rock solid.

Her essential priority is to root out corruption.

Arroyo holds a doctorate in economics and she attended Georgetown University in Washington — where she survived the experience of meeting Bill Clinton when they were both undergraduates.

She served in the cabinet of President Cory Aquino, as well of that of Estrada, and was a senator for a decade before running for the vice-presidency in 1998 – the post is contested separately from the presidency – she was elected in a landslide.

Speculation that Arroyo is in any way a proxy for former president Fidel Ramos, is wide of the mark.

She might have been sitting in the Malacanang Palace two-and-half years ago, if the Ramos party had backed her for the top post.

But the economic blueprint drawn up for the inevitable “100-Day” action plan does demonstrate a return to consensus government that was a hallmark of the Ramos era.

At its centre is a scheme to speed up construction of labour intensive public work projects, finding jobs for underclass workers. The plan has echoes of one launched by the Macapagal administration, which lifted economic growth, but got bogged down by graft.

Arroyo will soon sign an executive order banning presidential relatives, cabinet members and other presidential appointees from bidding in any auction of state assets in the ongoing privatisation program.

The problem for the new President is that she has to fight a battle on several fronts.

Her essential priority is to root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

Abductions have become commonplace in the Philippines and it is relatively easy for anyone of power and influence to have an enemy arrested.

One of Arroyo’s first speaking engagements was addressing the army at the military headquarters in Manila.

There have been sporadic rumours of a coup, and certainly there is dissension in the ranks.

The diminutive woman, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, asked the military to support her in the development of programs that addressed the root causes of insurgency and poverty.

She said she was prepared to resume peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the mainly catholic nation.

However, there would be “no negotiations” with the cut-throat Abu Sayyaf bandits, who kidnapped foreign tourists from a Malaysian dive resort last year.

Arroyo at least has a realistic chance of ridding the government of the influence of the Marcos cronies and crooks who have crept back over the past two years.

They tainted the administration of Estrada – who showed himself only too willing to be tainted.

Australia will be glad to see the back of his government, and particularly of the agricultural secretary Edgardo Angara who sought to blackmail us into buying more Philippines fruit by cutting back on imports of Australian cattle.

Canberra can work with Gloria Arroyo.

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