She's back: Is Speaker Arroyo poised to become prime minister?

Patrick Quintos, Arianne Merez and Joel Guinto, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 24 2018 08:40 PM

Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stands at the House rostrum before she assumed the speakership on July 23, 2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CB News

MANILA -- "Hypothetical" was how Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dismissed talk she would eventually take over as prime minister when she announced her transition from president to congresswoman nearly a decade ago.

Saying public service was "emblazoned" in her DNA, then-President Arroyo told state radio that she was heeding public clamor for her to stay in office.

Nine years later, after enduring 4 years of hospital arrest, staring down a plunder case, prevailing over a debilitating bone illness and trading her coiffed mane for soft, flowing curls, Arroyo is the head of one of two branches of Congress. 

"That is so hypothetical. I won't even bother to speculate about it," Arroyo said in the Radyo ng Bayan interview on Nov. 30, 2009, when asked about her chances of becoming prime minister under a parliamentary form of government.

While the draft federal constitution endorsed by President Rodrigo Duterte provides for a presidential setup, Congress may still opt to approve a parliamentary system headed by a prime minister who will be elected among members of parliament.

During his State of the Nation Address on Monday, the President said he had "no illusions" of occupying his post beyond June 30, when it is mandated to end under the 1987 charter.

CRUCIAL INGREDIENT

President Rodrigo Duterte and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo share a light moment during a courtesy visit in Malacañang on November 28, 2016. King Rodriguez, Malacanang Photo

Arroyo will likely play a crucial role in the Duterte government's efforts to shift to federalism, said University of the Philippines political science professor Ranjit Rye.

"She is known to be an effective politician and leader," Rye told ABS-CBN News. "She has the network, plus she is an important ally of the President."

Arroyo appeared poised to play a "key role" in the transition to federalism, should it proceed, Rye said. 

The former president is also in a "very strategic position" to define the new charter, Rye said, adding, "That could be anything, like prime minister."

Asked what the end game for Arroyo could be, Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms executive director Ramon Casiple said: "prime minister."

As Speaker, Arroyo is also in the succession line, after the president, vice president, and Senate president, Casiple said.

"Nasa ano na siya, leadership of whole country. Almost pwede mo nang sabihing: She's back," he told ABS-CBN News.

(She's in the leadership of the whole country. You can almost say: She's back.)

University of Santo Tomas political science department chairperson Dennis Coronacion said it was too early to predict Arroyo's next move.

"Ang basa ko diyan, she's happy. Wala siyang grand plan to become a prime minister. Parang masaya lang siya na tulungan ang pangulo," he told ABS-CBN News.

(My reading is that she's happy. She has no grand plan to become prime minister. She seems happy with just helping the President.)

CHANGE OF HEART

Philippine former president Gloria Arroyo. Ted Aljibe, AFP

In an interview with ABS-CBN News after her release from detention in mid-2016, Arroyo gave no clues about her political plans except that she leaves her fate to God.

"So, every day, I pray for discernment I get it in my prayer time. I see it in the events that unfold about me. That's why it's all up to God," she said.

The economics teacher and daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal always kept her foes guessing about her political plans.

During the Rizal Day holiday in December 2002, she shocked the nation by announcing that she was not seeking the presidency in 2004, only to announce her bid a year later.

Arroyo first rose to the presidency in January 2001 after then- President Joseph Estrada was ousted on corruption charges. Arroyo was his vice president and for a time served as social welfare secretary.

Until her radio announcement in November 2009, Arroyo had kept mum about a possible run for Congress in her home province of Pampanga.

Arroyo has not commented on the possibility of her becoming prime minister under a new charter, and in a brief statement on Tuesday, simply offered her support for Duterte.

"I will endeavor to carry out the legislative agenda of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Lower House," she said.

FROM COUP FIGHTER TO...

Arroyo took over from Alvarez in a nationally televised tug of war that delayed Duterte's third SONA. Before his ouster, Alvarez feuded publicly with the President's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio over her establishment of a regional political party.

Critics called the change in leadership a "coup," but Arroyo's congressional allies, including her former Cabinet aides, said rules were followed.

Arroyo stared down two military uprisings during her term.

In 2003, some 300 junior military officers and enlisted men booby-trapped a posh apartment building in the Makati financial district to protest their superiors' alleged misdeeds.

In 2007, the same group of soldiers walked out of their coup d'etat hearing and took over the Manila Peninsula Hotel, also in Makati, to press for her resignation.

The uprising was quelled in the evening of the same day after troops rammed a tank into the hotel lobby.

JUST DO IT

Arroyo was president for 9 years, the longest term since the restoration of democracy in 1986. She also received the lowest net satisfaction rating among all 5 previous presidents, with a -7 for her entire term and a record low -53 in March 2010, according to Social Weather Stations. 

She stayed in power despite the leak of purported wiretapped phone calls in 2005, which allegedly showed her talking to elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, in what was later called the "Hello Garci" tapes.

Arroyo never confirmed the tapes but apologized to the public in a nationally televised address for talking to an unnamed elections official. She owned up to a "lapse in judgment."

Her closest foe in the 2004 vote, movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., protested his loss to Arroyo but he died from a stroke before the case was resolved.

Poe's furious widow, Susan Roces, said following the release of the Garci tapes that Arroyo "stole the presidency, not once but twice."

But Arroyo pressed on from every controversy, even turning the tables on critics in her last SONA in 2009.

"I have never expressed the desire to extend myself beyond my term. Many of those who accuse me of it tried to cling like nails to their post," she said.

"To those who want to be President, this advice: If you want something done, just do it. Do it hard, do it well. Don't pussyfoot. Don't pander, and don't say bad words in public."