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The Philippines

Blast from the past: is Gloria Arroyo setting herself up to be Duterte’s successor?

Analysis: from seemingly nowhere, former Philippine leader has leapt back into the limelight, sparking speculation she could have her eyes on the country’s top job – again

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 7:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 10:45pm

Former Philippine leader Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stole more than the limelight from President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, after delaying his state-of-the-nation address by more than one hour. The diminutive 71-year-old made Duterte cool his heels along with hundreds of politicians and business leaders while she was installed as the new speaker of the House of Representatives.

Her bold action will make “the next 18 months very interesting” as she gives herself a political makeover, Earl Parreno of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms predicted.

He sees her positioning herself as a potential successor to Duterte. Arroyo could be a strong political contender, running against Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, and former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr, he said.

Duterte’s daughter was part of the plot to make Arroyo speaker, confirmed Congressman Fredenil Castro. The political squabble made Duterte furious, so much so that he threatened to walk out of congress minutes before his address. Senate President Vicente Sotto witnessed the drama and quoted Duterte as saying, “I will just walk out if [the two] don’t settle this.”

Parreno sees Beijing preferring Arroyo as she has proven herself to be a good friend of China.

Analysts had long written Arroyo off, with her seemingly content to be a kingmaker in Duterte’s shadow after backing his presidential bid.

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In gratitude and possibly part of an exchange deal, Duterte helped her political rehabilitation by taking her along on his official trips to China and giving her an important role in last year’s Asean summit in Manila.

Few foresaw that “charter change” could be Arroyo’s ticket to another shot at the nation’s top post. The current Philippine constitution restricts presidents from re-election and lawmakers like her to three successive three-year terms or a total of nine years.

But Duterte is trying to change. He has submitted a draft constitution to congress that would set up a federal system of government. Under the latest proposal, former presidents can run again for the top post after 2022 but Duterte cannot.

However, a “transition president” to oversee the change from unitary to federal will be elected upon ratification. Duterte has promised to resign to give way to the transition president, but nothing in the new proposal bars him from running for this post.

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First elected to congress in 2010, Arroyo is barred from running again as congresswoman in May 2019 but can run for any other post.

Being elected senator appeared bleak until this week. A new survey by Pulse Asia showed that while respondents had 98 per cent awareness of Arroyo, only 10.8 per cent said they would vote for her as senator.

Parreno conceded that most Filipinos still had a negative perception of her because of the electoral and money scandals she was embroiled in. However, he pointed out that “people’s perception changes fast”.

He also said compared to former speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, Arroyo was more capable of delivering Duterte’s pet measures, such as charter change and a tax reform package, by “collecting political debt” from lawmakers she favoured in her nine years as president.

On Monday, Arroyo promised to get Duterte’s pet measures approved.

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Arroyo has 10 months to change her image. She has a tough job ahead. She is still facing an electoral sabotage case involving the 2004 vote between her and late actor Fernando Poe Jnr. She has been able, though, to get four corruption cases dismissed.

One of the dismissed cases involved a US$329 million broadband project deal with Chinese company NBN-ZTE in 2007. Arroyo abruptly scuttled it after claims the contract was overpriced. Some Filipino officials were bribed and she knew about it.

In 2011, Arroyo was arrested. Some lawmakers who commended president at the time Benigno Aquino, also voted for her to become speaker on Monday. Due to a spinal problem, she was detained in hospital for nearly five years until Duterte helped get her released.

Her sudden emergence as a major power player has alarmed Senator Grace Poe, the late actor’s daughter. The family accused Arroyo of cheating.

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Poe warned on radio station DZBB on Tuesday: “My fellow countrymen, be prepared. You may just wake up and see her as powerful as [Duterte] or taking over as prime minister.”

Unlike Duterte, Arroyo prefers a parliamentary form of government led by a prime minister and without term limits.