'Philippines Turmoil Highlights Class-Based Politics'

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ROMEO GACAD/AFP

Riot police disperse supporters of jailed ex-president Joseph Estrada

Protests over the arrest of former President Joseph Estrada on corruption charges appear to have plunged the Philippines into a political crisis. Demonstrators are engaged in fierce clashes with the authorities, and President Gloria Arroyo is arresting opposition politicians, saying she's putting down some sort of attempt to seize power. What's happening in Manila right now?

Tim McGirk: It's a pretty amazing spectacle. President Arroyo has declared a "state of rebellion," which is just short of declaring martial law — which she couldn’t do without congressional approval. But she’s gone ahead and arrested several opposition senators, and two active serving generals.

I went to the presidential palace tonight, and it looked like a war zone. It was littered with the debris of a street battle — stones, burning garbage and sandals everywhere. Inside the presidential compound there were armored vehicles, fire engines, and about 200 commandos camped out in front with machine guns as if they’re still ready for something.

Why has she made these arrests?

She accuses the detained opposition politicians of stirring up the demonstrators, trying to provoke them into swarming the presidential palace. On Monday they came close to breaking through the outer perimeter of the palace. So she's arresting these people because she says they're trying to overthrow her government. But whether these arrests decrease or increase the danger of a coup is anybody's guess. Right now the streets of Manila are pretty deserted, and there's razor wire all around the palace. But the demonstrators have been chased back to Manila's shanty towns.

Why are people from the shanty towns out protesting in support of a man arrested on a string of corruption charges?

Because they think that Estrada was their man, and they see him as a victim of what they call the "power elite" — people like Arroryo, the wealthy daughter of a former president, who comes from the caste of people who have always run the Philippines. The intelligentsia and the middle and upper classes support Arroyo, but the poor — and there are a lot of them — go for Estrada. What we're not sure of is the extent to which this division has fractured the armed forces. Arroyo says they’re firmly behind her, but that's clearly not the case if she’s arresting serving generals.

What are the prospects for stability with congressional elections due later this month?

That’s a tricky one, because some people say that what she did now was all she could have done to maintain stability, but others think she's gone too far because her own legitimacy was dicey in the first place, and going around arresting her political opponents on the eve of an election doesn't bode well for democracy in the Philippines. There is speculation that the election may be postponed.

Arroyo has been counting on turning the economy around with more foreign investment, pitching the Philippines as less corrupt and more stable now that she's the president. But what we’ve seen this week is that this is a very deeply polarized society, and it's going to be harder to sell it as stable when she's forced declare de facto martial law and lock up her opponents.