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ANALYSIS - Arroyo seen immune but not innocent

They call it "sarsuwela" in the Philippines, or vaudeville.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo seen at the Malacanang presidential place in Manila in this February 14, 2008 file photo. (REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

When television broadcasts live a Senate inquiry into corruption in which President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband have been named, millions tune in.

Many have been horrified by tales of kickbacks amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars and bizarre efforts to prevent witnesses from testifying.

But ultimately, few believe the drama will play out on the streets or that Arroyo may be forced to quit.

"I don't think that you could just flick a switch on and it's going to occur tomorrow," said Mark Condon, a political risk analyst at Pacific Strategies & Assessments.

"I look at the rally sizes, and there's still not enough impetus there to make anything happen."

The Philippines is famous for two "people power" revolutions. The first in 1986 brought an end to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, while Arroyo came to power in 2001 upon the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

Estrada was similarly accused of corruption and removed from office when the military withdrew support after hundreds of thousands came out on the streets.

But disenchantment with what they got in his place -- Arroyo -- is making people wary of trying anything similar, analysts say. The biggest anti-Arroyo protest so far has drawn about 10,000 people.

"When they talk about people power fatigue, I think that's true," said Condon. "It's evident when you see the crowds that have been attracted. The crowds have been incredibly small."

The military is steadfast in its support of Arroyo.

And the powerful Catholic church declined on Tuesday to join calls for her resignation, although it said it strongly condemned "the continuing culture of corruption from the top to the bottom of our social and political ladder".

Most importantly, analysts say, there is no credible alternative to Arroyo, anyone who could become a rallying point for the disaffection against her.


Arroyo, 60, has weathered three impeachment attempts on charges of corruption and election fraud and at least three coups since she took office.

She appears calm and confident in public appearances, has denied the charges against her and vowed to see out her term, which ends in 2010.

Analysts say the latest revelations carry more weight than usual because of what appear to be brazen attempts by officials to prevent witnesses from testifying at the Senate.

Rodolfo "Jun" Lozada, a former government official, has broken down on national television, describing how he was taken by armed men when he landed on a flight from Hong Kong in what he believes was a move to block his testimony to the Senate on a $329 million telecommunications deal with China's ZTE Corp.

The national police chief later said he was just trying to provide security for Lozada at his own request.

"The people are really outraged, not just by the revelations but how the government tries to use all the instruments of the state just to cover this up," said Earl Parreno, an analyst at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms.

"The information that Jun Lozada provided is more of how Malacanang (the palace) tried to cover it up."

Arroyo's defenders say she has put the economy on a roll, with growth of 7.3 percent in 2007, a three-decade high. The peso currency is trading at 8-year highs at around 40.4 to the dollar.

The gains are slow to percolate to the more vulnerable sections of society, however, and the reports of kickbacks to government officials strike an angry chord.

"I really don't feel the so-called rise in the economy, we are really having a hard time," said Sonya Mabroada, a young woman who was waiting at a bus-stop in Manila with her husband and child.

"So for me, President Arroyo needs to step down. Because this really will not end until she steps down."

Still, the outrage is not widespread, and on present evidence seems unlikely to transform into any sort of popular movement.

"I am not really convinced by what the people are doing," said Dominic Pascual, a university student in Manila. "It's all about people power, but where's the heart, where's the sense in that? It seems like people power is being overused."

Parreno, the analyst, says people are apathetic because they believe all politicians are corrupt.

"They think they've been betrayed several times," he said. "Their interests were not actually protected during People Power 1 and People Power 2."

And the popularity of the live television broadcasts?

"Sarsuwela, we call it in the Philippines" -- pure theatre.

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