Philippines Crackdown May Have Been a 'Colossal Blunder'

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ED WRAY/AP

Arroyo thanked soldiers and police who have been protecting the palace

President Gloria Arroyo has cracked down on opposition leaders following Monday's attempted storming of the national palace. How will this affect her chances in the congressional elections scheduled for May 14?

Tim McGirk: Everybody that I've spoken to, which includes senior military officers, opposition politicians, and even members of her own cabinet are saying that she may have overreacted — that it was not necessary to call this "state of rebellion" and begin rounding up and arresting opposition politicians and generals. Today (Wednesday) the government issued more arrest warrants for some of the major opposition politicians, including Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, even though some have challenged the constitutionality of these arbitrary arrests.

But most of the opposition leaders, including Senator Gregorio Honasan, who still commands strong loyalty within the military, have gone into hiding. And, of course, the "state of rebellion" in terms of which these people were arrested still requires that they be charged or released within three days. So the big question now is whether she'll go ahead with the election. A lot of the opposition politicians are thinking that she may decide to cancel the elections, in which case there would be a huge uproar. Either that or, if the elections go ahead, she may have made a colossal blunder that could play into the hands of the opposition claims that she’s hounding them.

Presumably much now depends on the reaction of the military…

Yes, and some of those being pursued by the government, such as Honasan and Enrile, have strong support in the military. But a source in military intelligence told me today that the military has been burned so many times in failed coup attempts that they're not about to try again. They have also been scared by the fact that the U.S. embassy here came out and said that they supported Gloria. That would have been cause for hesitation by any generals thinking launching a coup.

Does President Arroyo have the power to call of the elections?

I don't think she can do it politically. It would prompt a huge uproar, and the military may not support her. But that would leave her going into an election campaign in the worst possible circumstances, which is why some are saying it was such a colossal blunder. But you have to understand that she had 70,000 of the poorest of the poor in the Philippines clamoring at the gates of the palace, and that’s a scary situation. Even those sections of the military opposed to Arroyo didn't properly gauge the extent of support for arrested former president Estrada. They didn't anticipate the size of the demonstrations and respond quickly enough. During the "People Power II" demonstrations that brought down Estrada, the head of the armed forces, General Reyes, saw the writing on the wall and decided to side with Gloria. But this time, time the elements in the army opposed to Gloria didn't have time to scramble themselves and unite with popular movement.

What we're seeing here for the first time is that the poorest, most marginalized and disenfranchised people are out on the streets, and not because people are paying them. They're there because they thought Estrada was their messiah, and that he had been wronged by the power elite that traditionally rules the Philippines.

So with demonstrations quieting down, is the election the next crisis point?

It's possible that the opposition could still try to stir things up in the provincial cities, especially in Mindanao. Because it's such a class-based thing, with the middle and upper classes backing Arroyo while the underclass supports Estrada, there is a real fear that if the poor come out on the streets again — and it really won't take much to get them there, particularly since they clearly sensed their power this week — that there could be widespread looting and chaos.