New president of Philippines takes office

She calls for healing amid protests against corruption of predecessor

January 21, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MANILA, Philippines - Having ridden to power on a wave of popular revulsion at the corruption of her predecessor, Gloria Macapgal Arroyo began her term as the 14th president of the Philippines with a call for national healing.

President Joseph Estrada was forced from office early yesterday by a groundswell of protest that erupted after attempts to impeach him collapsed when the Senate voted to block access to bank records that prosecutors said would have convicted him of corruption.

Arroyo, Estrada's vice president, faces considerable challenges in leading this poor but proud Southeast Asian nation of 90 million people, who have grown almost accustomed to political chaos, military coups, island insurgencies and economic instability.

Foremost among those challenges are restoring credibility to the country's tainted political system and rebuilding its shattered economy, including attracting foreign investment, reducing high unemployment, and taking steps to bridge the huge gap between the rich and the poor.

But perhaps the most formidable task the 53-year-old economist must face is how to deal with her predecessor, Estrada, who has vowed to remain in the country amid widespread calls for him to be brought to justice. Prosecutors had alleged that Estrada, a former movie idol who was once especially popular among poor Filipinos, had amassed tens of millions of dollars in bribes since becoming president in 1998.

Estrada agreed to relinquish power early yesterday after most of his Cabinet resigned, top military officials withdrew their support, and tens of thousands of protesters massed in the streets.

In a joyous celebration of their victory at a monument to the "people power" revolution that drove former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos from power in 1986, the crowds waved banners reiterating their call for Estrada's resignation and wildly cheered many members of the political, religious and business elite who appeared before them.

Most prominent figures in the Philippines had united in recent weeks in a quest for Estrada - not part of the elite - to step down. Corazon C. Aquino, who took over after the 1986 revolt, was there to give Arroyo her political blessing; a religious blessing for the new president came from Cardinal Jaime Sin, the nation's spiritual leader.

Also on stage to accept the salutations of the crowd was former President Fidel V. Ramos, an immensely influential figure who left office reluctantly after failing to amend the constitution to prolong his six-year tenure.

In her address to the crowd and to the nation live on television and radio, Arroyo said her administration would proceed cautiously so as not to further disrupt the nation, but she vowed to clean up the government and address the needs of the people.

"In all humility, I accept the privilege and responsibility to act as president of the republic," she told the cheering throngs. "I do so with a sense of trepidation and a sense of awe."

Pressure on Estrada to resign escalated Friday when his government nearly collapsed with the resignations of key Cabinet members and defections of senior military officials, including Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado and Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes.

As tens of thousands of protesters formed a human chain across the capital, Estrada sought to soothe angry demonstrators by offering to hold elections in May, for which he said he would not run. But opposition and religious leaders rejected the offer and gave Estrada until 6 a.m. yesterday to step down or face a huge march of demonstrators on Malacanang Palace, the presidential residence.

Still he refused to relinquish power, requesting a grace period of several days to plan what he termed an orderly transition and to procure a pardon against prosecution. But when the opposition vowed and the Supreme Court agreed to swear in Arroyo as president by noon yesterday, Estrada realized that it was time to go.

Late into the night across Manila, thousands of jubilant people, many of whom had earlier vowed to storm the presidential palace if Estrada did not step down, celebrated what they saw as a maturation of democracy in the Philippines.

Like many revelers, Manny Reyes, a construction worker, expressed pride that his country's political crisis was resolved without bloodshed. "The people spoke, and their voices were heard," he said. "All that's left to do now is to put Estrada in jail."

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