Philippines Leader Admits Mistake, Fends off Resignation Demands

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A political crisis battering the Philippines deepened Monday when President Gloria Arroyo admitted a "lapse of judgment" in making an inappropriate phone call to an electoral commissioner during last year's election.

In a televised address to the nation, Arroyo denied accusations that she had sought to rig the result of the election, in which she beat movie star Fernando Poe by more than a million votes.

"I was anxious to protect my votes and during that time had conversations with many people, including a Comelec [Commission on Elections] official," Arroyo said.

"My intent was not to influence the outcome of the election and it did not," she said, noting that at the time of the conversation the votes already had been counted.

Her statement came after three weeks of growing public pressure sparked by political opponents' release of a tape recording of a phone conversation apparently between Arroyo and a commission member.

The president said she took full responsibility for the "lapse of judgment" and added that she wanted to "close this chapter and move on with the business of governing."

"I will redouble my efforts to serve you and regain your trust."

The episode has triggered new resignation demands, on top of earlier ones prompted by allegations that two members of her family, both lawmakers, had benefited from an illegal gambling racket.

Arroyo's popularity has plummeted over the gambling allegations, a large budget deficit and an unpopular move to introduce a new value-added tax.

The Social Weather Stations polling firm released a survey indicating that 59 percent of the population was unhappy with the president's performance and 26 percent satisfied. It was the lowest rating for a leader since 1986, when former president Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown by the Philippines' first "people's power" revolt.

This week a lawyer filed an impeachment application with the House of Representatives, accusing Arroyo of "betrayal of public trust" -- an impeachable offense. The complaint would need congressional backing to move ahead, but Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez already has said it has no legal basis.

In a country where several leaders have been brought down by popular protests and where more than a dozen military mutinies have occurred since 1986, the crisis has given rise to speculation that another coup could be imminent.

Amid corruption charges against several senior army officers and a flurry of coup plot rumor, Arroyo last week named a new armed forces chief.

Joseph Estrada, Arroyo's predecessor as president, survived an impeachment trial but was ousted in a 2001 military-backed revolt -- known as "people's power 2" -- and later encouraged his close friend, Poe, to run against Arroyo in last year's election.

Poe afterwards claimed election fraud, but he died last December after suffering a stroke.

Estrada on Monday added his voice to those calling for Arroyo to face the consequences of her actions, saying she should be forced to answer in court. He also called for the full recording of the secretly-recorded phone conversation to be made available.

Other early indications of political reaction to Arroyo's admission also suggest that her difficulties are not over.

One of the failed candidates in the 2004 elections, Senator Panfilo Lacson, said he had listened to the tape recording and it was obvious the intention was to cheat. He said Arroyo should resign.

Another opposition lawmaker, Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimentel, accused Arroyo of "telling half truths," saying in a television interview her actions constituted a" betrayal of public trust."

Others supported her, however, among them Senator Miriam Santiago, a former judge, who said in a statement there was no basis for Arroyo's resignation or impeachment.

Senate president Franklin Drilon praised Arroyo's "courage and humility" and urged her to continue her program of economic reform.

Drilon is third in line for the presidency, after Vice President Noli de Castro.

Congress is holding public hearings on the tape recording, and separately, on the alleged gambling issue.

The Philippines is a key Southeast Asian ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamist terror, and American forces have trained Filipino soldiers fighting Muslim terrorists in the southern Mindanao region.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow