A mother struggling to rein in rebellious children

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 12:00am

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo likes to portray herself as the mother of the nation. So imagine for a moment that she is your mother.

With a reputation for being extremely serious, getting everything she wants and liking nothing better than curling up with a good book on economics, breakfast at the Arroyos may not be everyone's cup of tea.

So, let us skip breakfast and consider Mrs Arroyo's other attributes - being devoutly Catholic in Asia's most Catholic country, having a dawn-to-way-past-dusk work ethic and an apparent desire to hold on to power at any cost.

The last two characteristics are somewhat reminiscent of another woman of politics, Britain's 1980s prime minister Margaret Thatcher, better known as the 'Iron Lady'.

As Mrs Arroyo enters the room for dinner and you cheerfully ask if she had a good day at work, consider the fate of Baroness Thatcher's son, Sir Mark. In January, he admitted to being part of a plot to overthrow the government of the African country of Equatorial Guinea and was fined US$500,000 and given a four-year suspended jail sentence.

That is not to say that having a maternal link with Mrs Arroyo would also drive one to delusions of power. In the case of her eldest son, Congressman Juan Miguel 'Mikey' Arroyo, it means banishment to California with the first husband, lawyer and businessman Jose Miguel Arroyo, to ride out a storm of allegations that they took kickbacks from kingpins of illegal gambling.

It is hardly surprising that they went into exile without protest. The pair are doubtless enjoying the sun and surf far more than the grey cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Philippines.

Claims that Mrs Arroyo won the presidency in May last year through vote-rigging are quickly coming to a head. Monday could be the day of reckoning with Congress returning from recess, the president's annual state-of-the-nation address and the opposition promising to file up to 10 charges aimed at bringing about her impeachment.

Mrs Arroyo has characteristically denied wrongdoing and rejected calls to resign. She wants her own 'truth commission' comprised of investigators of her choosing.

That all fits in with the image one easily conjures of Mrs Arroyo stamping her little foot in a pique of enraged, spoilt brattishness. She seems to have been doing it most of her life.

In a rare interview in December 2000, she revealed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper that at the age of four years, jealous after her mother gave birth to her younger brother, she told her grandmother: 'I'm going to go and live with you because they don't love me any more.'

So she did, enjoying the beach, surf and cold springs at her grandmother's home in Iligan City in preference to life with her two siblings from her father's first marriage and brother in Pampanga province. But when her father, Diosdada Macapagal, won the presidency in 1961, the then 14-year-old had no qualms about going to live at the presidential palace. She stayed until 1965, when her father lost elections to future dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The Macapagal presidency is tinged with a fuzzy halo of gold by Filipinos old enough to remember. During those years, the Philippines was second only to Japan in terms of economic and industrial development in Asia. Mrs Arroyo is not shy about use of the Macapagal tag next to her married name.

Highly intelligent, she was always top of her class at the elite Assumption Convent. She gained acceptance to Georgetown University in the US, where she was a friend and classmate of future American president Bill Clinton, but after two years, returned to the Philippines in 1968 to marry Mr Arroyo. They have three children.

Her father wanted her to become an entrepreneur, so she has a bachelor's degree in commerce and a master's and doctorate in economics. That led her not to a life in business, though, because, as she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, as she grew older, she wanted 'different things' - to be a teacher, then a pilot, then a professional working for a government.

In her 58 years, Mrs Arroyo has fulfilled two of those ambitions. After university, she entered teaching, eventually becoming a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines. From there, it was a short step to being appointed undersecretary of trade and industry by former president Corazon Aquino.

Thus began a brilliant political career. Mrs Arroyo ran for the senate in 1992, easily winning a seat, and three years later won re-election with a landslide 16 million votes, the most attained by any candidate running for elected office in the Philippines. As a Senator, she authored or co-authored 55 socio-economic bills, earning acclaim as an outstanding legislator.

In 1998, she contested and won the vice-presidency with 12.7 million votes, the most a vice-presidential candidate has ever received and more than twice that of her nearest rival.

As deputy to president Joseph Estrada, a popular actor in B-movies, she was the perfect counter-foil. He was a high school dropout and womaniser who liked late nights of heavy drinking and gambling. She had a PhD, just one husband and enjoyed getting to the office early.

Nobody really knows how much of a hand Mrs Arroyo had in Estrada being accused of corruption, getting trapped in his palace by a 'people power' revolt and forced to resign when the army withdrew support. As she had quit his cabinet on October 12, 2000, and joined the opposition, it is unclear whether, on January 20, 2001, as she was being sworn into the presidency, she honestly meant the words of her inaugural speech: that she was taking on the job with 'trepidation and awe'.

Mrs Arroyo served out Estrada's term and, obviously liking the challenge, was among the five candidates who ran for president in May last year. She defeated her nearest rival, Estrada's friend and fellow actor, Fernando Poe, by 1 million votes.

That she has mounted a tenacious defence to stay in power strengthens comparisons with the 'Iron Lady'.

But although she had a reputation as a wise economist when she took office, none of that expertise has translated into turning around the Philippines' economic fortunes. While growth rates are respectable, the government is struggling with a big budget deficit and ballooning loan repayments. Consistent promises of constitutional reform and ridding the country of corruption have amounted to little.

A mother who makes promises and rarely makes good on them soon has rebellious children. That is what is happening, as increasing numbers of supporters desert the woman who likes to think of herself as the nation's mother.

Stamp her foot as much as she likes, they do not look like coming home.