"I’m sorry... I ask you to forgive me," Ms Arroyo said on national television, her contrite, grave mien a stark contrast to her often haughty air that had marked her public appearances over the last four years.
"I recognise that making any such call was a lapse in judgment," she said on Monday, punctuating her 10-minute televised address to the nation with words that few had thought she would say. "I’m sorry... I fully regret this."
At least three versions of the computer diskette containing nearly three hours of Ms Arroyo’s phone chats with the official —in most Filipinos’ mind veritable evidence that she might have cheated in the canvassing of votes —had fuelled opposition calls for her to resign or face impeachment.
It was Ms Arroyo’s spokesperson and press secretary, Ignacio Bunye, who revealed the existence of the tape at a Press conference last June 5, in an obvious attempt at cover-up. Bunye then affirmed that the woman’s voice in the tape was that of Ms Arroyo but that the man’s voice was not of the election official but only Ms Arroyo’s campaign manager.
Three days later, Bunye recanted his statements, saying he was not sure anymore that the voice was Ms Arroyo’s, adding that his decision to go public about the tape was his own doing, as it was cleared with his principal, the President.
The Palace’s feeble attempt at cover-up bungled, Ms Arroyo promptly turned to various other ways of skirting what local media now calls the "Gloriagate" issue. Her justice secretary and other deputies raised the threat of arrest, for people and groups that would play or air or distribute copies of the tape. Her allies in Congress talked endlessly to stall and waylay a joint inquiry into the tape launched by five legislative committees. Her other deputies adorned the streets of Manila with grand, glitzy tarpaulin posters pledging undiminished faith in her administration.
For 22 days, she kept her peace, and ducked and bucked, despite vigorous popular clamour for her to own up to grave hints of electoral fraud she supposedly committed with the help of some military officers and election officials. Unto the end, her spokesman insisted incessantly that Ms Arroyo did not cheat her way to the presidency but "won fair and square."
In mostly Catholic Philippines, a few articles of faith seem to drive the Filipinos’ attitude toward their political leaders. Filipinos send to high office any candidate, infirm of mind or soul or both, provided he/she admits to his/her weaknesses.
This lesson was not lost on former movie star Joseph Estrada, who scored a landslide victory in the 1998 presidential elections. To tear him up, his political foes dwelt on Estrada’s ineptitudes as a college dropout given to wine, women and gambling. Estrada owned up to all the vices imputed to him, and by his inscrutable honesty about his sins, Filipinos saw virtue in electing him president.
She had better education and claims to pray more often, but Mrs. Arroyo was less discerning than Estrada in mastering the mind of the Filipino voter. She waited 22 days to do her public act of contrition. And because she has, in a manner of speaking, repented, even her most acerbic critics have dutifully agreed to accept her offer of apology.
Still, forgiving is not quite equivalent to forgetting. Lawyers, politicians, activists, church ministers and citizens continue to debate the merits and demerits of forgetting Ms Arroyo’s "sins." The critics insist that the phone conversations could not simply be brushed off as "a lapse in judgment" for the simple reason that the tape reveals that Ms Arroyo made not just one but 14 phone calls to the election official. What Ms Arroyo calls "lapse in judgment" could well qualify as a pattern of misbehaviour and multiple and repeated acts of indiscretion, they add.
Ms Arroyo’s apology raised more questions than it answered. For one, if military intelligence agents wiretapped her phone chats with the election official, didn’t Ms Arroyo as commander-in-chief order it herself? For another, if indeed she came to power by allegedly rigging the canvass of votes, does she, in fact, have solid, lawful mandate, to sit as president?
And finally, if Ms Arroyo has no rightful claim to the presidency, how could Congress even initiate impeachment proceedings against her, a pretender to the throne?
Malou Mangahas is a Manila based journalist
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