Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faced intense pressure Friday to step down as 10 of her cabinet members and former president Corazon Aquino added their voices to those demanding her resignation.
Arroyo, trying to weather allegations that she cheated in the last election, sought to preempt a cabinet mutiny earlier in the week by firing her entire team. But the month-old leadership crisis escalated dramatically when disaffected cabinet secretaries, including most of her top economic advisers, announced at a morning news conference that it was Arroyo who must go.
Hours later, Aquino also broke with the president, urging her to make the "supreme sacrifice." A moral icon since she replaced longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos 19 years ago, Aquino said in a televised statement, "I am asking the president to spare our country and herself."
In recent days, Arroyo has lost crucial support from both the country's influential Roman Catholic Church and the junior ranks of the often restive military, which has launched more than a half dozen coup attempts in the last two decades.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, which holds its annual retreat this weekend, was expected to release a statement further increasing the pressure on Arroyo. A call by the Church for her resignation would be a crushing blow in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.
To avoid chaos in the capital, the armed forces and Manila police placed the metropolitan area on the highest state of alert. Senior military commanders repeated their pledge that the armed forces would remain neutral in the political standoff.
Arroyo, speaking in a taped message released late in the day, accused her detractors of subverting the country's laws. "Their actions cause deep and grievous harm to the nation because they undermine our democratic principles and the very foundation of our constitution," she said. She insisted she would stay in office and soon name a new cabinet to work on improving the economy.
The president's critics have demanded she account for her role in a vote-fixing scandal, which erupted after tapes surfaced of wiretapped conversations she held last year with a national election commissioner. The recordings appear to indicate they conspired to ensure Arroyo would win a second presidential term by at least 1 million votes.
Late last month, Arroyo went on prime-time television to apologize for her "lapse in judgment" in calling the election commissioner but stressed that she was not guilty of cheating.
Then, Arroyo announced she was willing to make a sacrifice for the nation: She sent her husband, who had been named in the vote-rigging and other scandals, out of the country.
After the release this week of an opinion survey showing her approval rating at a record low of 20 percent and news reports of creeping dissent in her inner circle, Arroyo returned to the airwaves Thursday night. On national radio, she rejected demands to quit and, without warning, directed her entire cabinet to resign on the grounds that she wanted to assemble a new team to help restructure the Philippine government and campaign politics.
"It is simply the truth that the political system that I am part of has degenerated to the point that it needs fundamental change," she said.
Cabinet members, including the finance, trade and budget secretaries, agreed Friday to step down. They also asked that Arroyo be replaced by Vice President Noli de Castro, 56, a relative newcomer to government who was a popular television news anchor before entering politics four years ago.
"More pressing and immediate concerns confront our people today than poisoned politics or infirmities in our constitution," said Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. "The longer the president stays in office under a cloud of doubt and distrust and with her style of decision-making, the greater the damage on the economy and the more vulnerable the fragile political situation becomes to extremists seeking to undermine our democratic life."
So far, street demonstrations called by opposition parties have failed to draw crowds of the size that have toppled two Philippine presidents. Peaceful protests brought Aquino to power in 1986. A similar "People Power" movement hoisted Arroyo, then vice president, into the top spot four years ago to replace President Joseph Estrada, who was facing impeachment on graft charges.
Arroyo, 58, a convent schoolgirl who attended Georgetown University, rode to the presidency vowing to right the country's finances, run crooks out of government and restore moral rectitude to an office sullied by the cronyism and carousing of her predecessor, a former action movie star. Early in her tenure, she and four senior aides posed on the cover of a high-society magazine wearing dark suits and sunglasses in the style of characters in the film Men in Black to emphasize they would be gunning to clean up the Philippines.
Then came the tapes.
Her own security services, wiretapping the election commissioner's telephone last year, inadvertently caught Arroyo repeatedly calling to discuss the balloting for president. Security and political analysts in Manila said they believed the surveillance had been carried out by the military's intelligence service, probably at the direction of the president's own campaign aides to make sure the commissioner did not strike a covert deal with the political opposition in the tightly contested election.
"When the tapes came out, it was a shock," said Marites Vitug, editor of Newsbreak magazine. "This woman, who goes to Mass everyday, who went to convent schools and tells us God is her refuge, lies and cheats. It is so offensive."
The vote scandal came on top of demands from the political opposition for an investigation into the alleged relationship between Philippine gambling syndicates and Arroyo's husband, son and brother-in-law. Similar allegations of involvement in numbers rackets led to Estrada's ouster, but the illegal lottery, known as jueteng, has proliferated during Arroyo's tenure, political observers said.
Since taking office, Arroyo has had the backing of the Catholic Church, in part because of her opposition to birth control policies. But three bishops have called for her to quit and Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales issued a pastoral letter saying, "Those who seek forgiveness should be ready to be called to accountability."
Disenchantment has also spread among junior officers and enlisted personnel in the armed forces, according to former military officers who remain in close contact with them. Former Army Capt. Rene Jarque said many in the junior ranks were angered when they heard portions of the secret tapes that apparently described how the Arroyo campaign had used senior military officers to manipulate vote counts.
Jarque and other former military brass said junior officers remained wary of acting outside the chain of command to launch a coup against Arroyo. But he said these officers were now considering mass resignation, taking leave, or conducting large prayer meetings to signal their discontent and further weaken the president.
At an emergency meeting Friday, military chief Gen. Efren Abu told senior field commanders that troops must remain insulated from partisan politics. "The soldier has the duty to protect this political exercise," Abu said. "He is not expected to intervene in it."