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 Philippine Government Collapses

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 20, 2001; Page A01

MANILA, Jan. 20 (Saturday) -- Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was quickly sworn in as president of the Philippines this afternoon after President Joseph Estrada announced he would step down following a decision
by top military commanders and most of his cabinet to abandon him and throw their support behind hundreds of thousands of impassioned street protesters.

Capping a day of remarkable political intrigue, Estrada and his family ignominiously left the sprawling presidential palace grounds by a river barge two hours after Arroyo took the oath of office.

In a brief resignation letter, he said he was leaving "for the sake of peace and in order to begin the healing process of our nation."

After a swearing-in ceremony at a Manila monument to the "people power" revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, Arroyo pledged to "change the character of our politics in order to create fertile ground for true reforms."

"Our politics of personality and patronage must give way to new politics," she told throngs of cheering supporters. In an effort to salve the deep divisions caused by a corruption scandal that ultimately brought down Estrada's presidency, she said the country now would enter a "a time to heal
and a time to build."

Although Estrada lost the backing of the military and much of his cabinet on Friday afternoon, he holed himself up in the presidential palace, initially refusing to resign. He subsequently asked for a pardon, the right to carry large amounts of cash from the palace and five days to leave office. But opposition leaders rejected those requests and demanded that he step down immediately.

The country's Supreme Court ruled this morning that Estrada should be stripped of the presidency, and the justices authorized Chief Justice Hilario Davide to administer the oath of office to Arroyo even without a formal resignation from Estrada.

Legions of demonstrators, who have protested continuously since Estrada's impeachment trial collapsed on Tuesday, this morning marched to the palace, which was ringed by a security detail that remained Estrada's last line of official support.

Brief scuffles erupted after the protesters toppled police
barricades and confronted several hundred supporters of the president.

After Estrada announced he would quit, the demonstrators broke into a frenzied celebration, cheering wildly and waving flags. The military commanders and cabinet members who defected from Estrada's camp issued a statement calling Arroyo "our new national leader" and pledging to take orders only from her.

"The president has not only lost moral authority to govern, but now has no government," Arroyo said in a statement prior to her swearing in. While Estrada remained the palace this morning, an air force fighter plane buzzed over the compound, and four military helicopters hovered nearby, in an apparent reminder to him that he had lost the backing of military leaders.

The noisy street protests grew out of a political scandal that erupted in October, when a provincial governor accused the president of accepting nearly $12 million in bribes from tobacco taxes and an illegal gambling operation.

Within weeks, opposition groups, led by Arroyo, filed impeachment charges, which resulted in a U.S.-style Senate trial that began last month. During those proceedings, prosecutors alleged that the president ran what amounted to a criminal syndicate from the nation's highest office, hiding millions of dollars of bribe money in bank accounts under false names, engaging in insider stock trading and using ill-gotten funds to buy mansions and expensive gifts for several mistresses.

But the country's effort to use a peaceful, constitutional process to judge its leader degenerated into chaos Tuesday after a narrow majority of senators refused to examine bank records that prosecutors said would detail the vast illegal wealth accumulated by Estrada.

Saying a fair verdict was impossible, the entire team of prosecutors quit, forcing an indefinite adjournment of the trial and leading people to take to the streets in an effort to reprise the anti-Marcos "people power" rallies.

It was unclear this afternoon where Estrada would go. Two Philippine Airlines jets were on standby at an air force base in Manila to ferry the president out of the country amid rumors he and his family would attempt to flee to the United States or Australia.