Philippines' Arroyo not retiring
Manila - Philippine President Gloria Arroyo announced on Monday she would run for a seat in parliament next year, triggering immediate outrage from opponents who said she was making a brazen bid to stay in power.
Citing her desire to continue in public service and the clamour of her supporters, Arroyo said she wanted to represent her home province of Pampanga in Congress after her term as president ends.
"After much contemplation I realised I am not ready to step down completely from public service," Arroyo, 62, said on government radio.
"I hope to be a champion for the poor and to work to uplift the economy... I will work for this from a position closer to the people."
However opponents said Arroyo, who is mandated by the constitution to step down as president next year, intended to enter parliament so she could retain immunity against potential corruption charges.
They said it may also give Arroyo a platform to change the constitution so she could continue ruling the country as prime minister under a Westminster system of government, rather than the current US-style presidential model.
"If this was out of a desire to serve the people, it would be admirable," said former leader Joesph Estrada, who is seeking a second term as president in the May elections.
"But it is a brazen attempt to stay in power forever. This should be considered as a warning that the scheming by this regime will not end with this president's term in 2010."
In the government radio interview, Arroyo sidestepped a question about whether she wanted to change the constitution and become the first prime minister of the Philippines in a similar move to Russia's Vladimir Putin.
"That situation is so hypothetical I won't even bother to speculate about it," she responded.
Arroyo would be able to change the constitution only if her Lakas Kampi CMD coalition gained enough seats in both houses of parliament in the May elections.
Arroyo gave a more direct denial of accusations that she wanted to enter parliament to retain immunity against graft charges that opponents have said they plan to file against her for alleged corrupt activities while president.
"Congressional immunity is only from libel suits for utterances made in Congressional sessions. That is not what I am after. This will reflect my own level of commitment to public service," she said.
However, with the legal situation extremely murky, critics insisted Arroyo was hoping to dodge graft charges.
"Perhaps that's her exit plan to ensure protection," said high-profile opposition Senator Francis Escudero.
"While it's her right to do so [run for Congress], it surely leaves a bad taste in the mouth. What else does she need to prove and accomplish?"
The Philippines' constitution states that Philippine presidents are not allowed to seek re-election after their six-year term ends.
Arroyo has actually served eight years as president after rising to power in the wake of a bloodless military-backed uprising against Estrada in 2001.
Arroyo had been vice president under Estrada, then went on to win her own six-year term in 2004 in an election tainted by allegations she sought to rig the vote.
Regardless of her long-term ambitions, Arroyo's opponents said she would have an unfair advantage while campaigning for Congress because of her presidential powers.
"She's setting a bad precedent [by] hanging on to a presidential post and using presidential power and funds to crush any Congressional opponent," said opposition Senator Aquilino Pimentel.
"She's making the political playing field uneven versus all democratic demands for fairness."
In the most recent national survey of preferred presidential candidates conducted last month, the Liberal Party's Benigno Aquino - son of democracy champion Corazon Aquino - had a clear lead with 44% of the vote.
Billionaire property developer Manny Villar was second with 19%, while Estrada was in fourth place with 11%.
Arroyo's designated successor, former defence secretary Gilberto Teodoro, had just two percent support, highlighting the problems the Lakas Kampi CMD coalition would face if Arroyo disappeared from the political scene.