It might be an old fashioned family feud – the Aquinos versus the Arroyos – that’s worthy of a nation’s attention. But for former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, the consequences of the row could well go beyond family and sovereign borders.
Few would have been surprised by her arrest after authorities blocked her attempt to fly out of the country to seek medical attention for a bone ailment, seated in a wheelchair and sporting a rather elaborate head and neck brace.
Arroyo, 64, had secured a temporary travel clearance from the Supreme Court, and many thought the former leader was bound for Spain, a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Manila. However, the government of President Benigno Aquino ignored the order, and investigations now include whether she also intended to seek political asylum in Portugal or the Dominican Republic.
The saga leading up to the charges has been covered in previous Diplomat dispatches, which relate to allegations of fraud and tampering with the results of the 2007 congressional elections.
Also included is the alleged pocketing of $23 million from a government contract, as well as claims she had direct knowledge of cheating in the autonomous Muslim region in the country’s troubled south, where ballot boxes were apparently switched en-masse and voters paid or intimidated.
A Senate Electoral Tribunal found Miguel Zubiri had benefited from fake ballots, while an election supervisor and a former governor have testified that Arroyo and her husband Mike had ordered the election rigging. Zubiri has since resigned his Senate seat.
But her alliances reach much further.
Others have also been charged, including Andal Ampatuan Sr, the former Muslim regional governor, patriarch, and former Arroyo ally. He’s on trial for allegedly ordering the 2009 massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists and political opponents of Arroyo, at Maguindanao two years ago.
If convicted, Arroyo faces a jail term of up to 40 years.
Arroyo’s critics claim she used presidential immunity to shield her allies from corruption charges and human rights abuses. Under her nine-year stewardship, 104 journalists were murdered, while NGOs have recorded 1,190 extrajudicial killings, 205 enforced disappearances and another more than 1,000 victims of torture.
Arroyo denies the charges, and her supporters want the former president placed under house arrest until her case is heard, along similar lines to another former president, Joseph Estrada, who was jailed for corruption. He was pardoned by Arroyo.
Mike has asked the Supreme Court to stop his wife’s prosecution, arguing a government panel that investigated and sued her for vote fraud was unconstitutional.
Aquino and Arroyo are both from long standing political dynasties, and Aquino came to power on a promise to rid his country of corruption, beginning with Arroyo. She is also facing lawsuits related to the Maguindanao Massacre and her return to office in the House of Representatives.
The latter include allegations that state funds were diverted for election campaigning. Other families are also facing anti-graft and tax evasion charges.
The outcomes have potentially enormous implications for a country that seems incapable of producing a leader that can keep their fingers out of the public cookie jar or simply leave people with dissenting opinions alone. And the legal brawling and the inter-family acrimony and rivalry have only just got started.