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Philippines' Arroyo likely to step down next year
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Fears that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo may amend the constitution to stay on in power have worried financial markets for months, but signs are now emerging that she may go quietly, analysts say.

The clearest, they say, was last week's visit to Washington where she was the first leader from Southeast Asia to hold discussions with US President Barack Obama since he was elected.

"Because Obama would never risk a photo opportunity with a leader who could ostensibly extend her illegitimate grip on power, the Obama-Arroyo meeting might be the most telling sign that Arroyo will abandon any tactic to do so," said Pete Troilo of risk consultancy Pacific Security and Assessments.

"This includes the declaration of martial law and altering the constitution to allow her to become prime minister," he added.

Arroyo's term ends next year and she is barred by the constitution from contesting the elections in May.

But analysts say her supporters have considered several options to circumvent term limits and keep her in power, including amending the constitution, changing to a Westminster model of government with her as the prime minister, or postponing the elections under some pretext.

Arroyo's popularity is low and the prospects of any such move, and ensuing public protests, have made markets jittery.

Last month, Arroyo's speech at the opening of the joint session of Congress did little to end the speculation. She did not categorically say that she was retiring from politics next year as two former presidents had done before her.

But she did say: "I have never expressed the desire to extend myself beyond my term."

Analysts believe the United States, worried about potential political uncertainty in the Philippines next year, leaned on Arroyo to drop her ambitions in exchange for a visit to the White House, which she has long coveted.

"Washington invited Mrs Arroyo because it wanted to make sure the region remains stable because her ambitions tend to undermine and compromise US interests," said Rex Robles, a retired navy commodore and security analyst.

"She has to be told she will have to pay a big price if she holds on to power and it will not help at all if she continues with her plans to stay after 2010. Gloria has to go quietly."

Malcolm Cook, program director for the Asia-Pacific at Sydney's Lowy Institute for International Policy, also believed that the United States "would not support any creative interpretation of the constitution".

"I am pretty sure that it would not fit into an Obama administration's foreign policy to support what appears to be a weakening of the constitution for her to stay in power," Cook said.

Some Washington officials, including the ambassador to the Philippines, have issued statements that they look forward to elections next year.

Obama and Arroyo exchanged views for about an hour at the White House, touching on issues of mutual interest, such as security, economy and environment. Obama even asked Manila to be its coordinator in dealing with Southeast Asian states.

Arroyo's office trumpeted the meeting as a huge success, cementing closer ties between Manila and Washington, its former colonial master.

But, analysts believed the meeting was largely a "photo op" for Arroyo. "I am sure most of the meeting was a meet and greet," Cook said.

(China Daily via agencies August 4, 2009)

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