Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is resilient. As President of the Philippines she withstood coup attempts and corruption charges, heading the country’s fractious democracy for nine long years. Now, not two years after stepping aside, the privileged daughter of a former President faces the prospect of spending the rest of her life in jail. Arroyo has been dogged by allegations of vote-rigging fraud since she left office. The current government considers her a flight risk and banned her from international travel. Last week, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Arroyo, who says she suffers from a bone disease and recently underwent spinal surgery and titanium implants, could seek medical treatment abroad. When she arrived at the airport in a wheelchair, though, she was turned away. Soon after, she was arrested in her hospital bed on charges of electoral fraud.
Arroyo, 63, is now locked in a high-stakes political standoff with another scion of Filipino politics: her successor, President Benigno Aquino III. Aquino, also known as Noynoy, is the only son of democracy icon Benigno S. Aquino and his revered wife, former President Corazon Aquino, who died in 2009. Riding a tide of emotion following his mother’s death — and widespread dissatisfaction with Arroyo — Noynoy swept to power in 2010, promising to end corruption and restore faith in government. It was a bold promise from the soft-spoken political novice, who, by his own admission, never imagined he’d rule. Now the fate of his presidency — and the family name — depend on his ability to deliver. And netting Arroyo (ironically, his former law professor) would help.
The Arroyo case could indeed be a turning point for Aquino. He was widely panned for his handling of last year’s Manila hostage crisis and is regularly criticized for lacking resolve. His tussle with the former President is, perhaps, his boldest move yet. And so far, it’s worked; the bedside arrest did not spark the mass protests some feared and even the Arroyo-friendly military has stayed mum. Aquino supporters are keen to cast it as a victory, calling it evidence of “extraordinary political will.” In a House resolution, they lauded his “zeal to weed out corruption, inefficiency and abuse of power an all branches of government.”
The fight, though, is far from over. The stage is set for a legal showdown and long-serving Arroyo has powerful allies in court. Eight of the Supreme Court Justices (out of a total of 15) who last week ruled in favor of letting her leave the country were appointed by Arroyo herself. The government staged an end-run around that decision by way of an arrest order from a lower court — but now that judgment is being appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court may also consider the constitutionality of the original election fraud charge against her. If the case against the former President proceeds, it will doubtless be a long, complex affair. And Aquino, the would-be reformer, may find that zeal is not enough.