Arroyo to present investment plan

Cecil Morella, MANILA, AFP

President Gloria Arroyo will use her state of the nation address on Monday to present a roadmap for building a “strong republic” and keeping the Philippines on the radar screens of foreign investors.

She will also detail her government’s achievements over the past year in improving the lives of 80 million Filipinos, including the 36 million who live on just two dollars or less everyday.

Arroyo, 55, is beset with perilous state finances, violent crime, including a rash of kidnappings-for-ransom and an Islamic insurgence in the south, as well as dissent within her own party.

Her popularity is eroding and she admits some foreign investors are pulling up stakes due to costly electricity and high crime rates.

Swept to power 18 months ago on the back of a popular revolt sparked by a corruption scandal surrounding her predecessor Joseph Estrada, Arroyo said this month that she would focus on cutting crime and wooing back investment over the next 12 months.

She is also expected to use her address to sell the country on “the idea of a strong republic.”

Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal said in the 60s that countries emerging from Western colonial rule are often frustrated by corruption and weak governments that could not enforce laws nor deliver basic services.

“I know that those are problems,” she said. “Those are our challenges to competitiveness.”

With 2001 gross domestic product growth of 3.4 percent and an 80 million-strong population growing at a 2.36 percent annual clip, the Philippines is barely treading water.

Nearly a third of the labor force are without work or are underemployed. Diplomats say Manila needs foreign investment to create jobs to feed a very young and rapidly growing population.

Arroyo has pledged to pursue reform and ignore “histrionics” by people baying for populist remedies, rejecting calls to unilaterally cancel power supply contracts with private generating companies that the public consider overpriced.

“A democratic leader is not meant to be a wimp,” she said.

Her courage has also been tested by dissent within her own administration.

Earlier this month, Arroyo eased out Vice President Teofisto Guingona from his concurrent cabinet post as foreign secretary after he criticized the deployment of U.S. military advisers in the south to train and assist Filipino troops fighting Abu Sayyaf kidnappers.

Her party has also lost its control of the Senate through a defection, but central bank governor Rafael Buenaventura, a key member of Arroyo’s economic team, dismisses it as a temporary setback.

“They can fight all they want on the political side but they know that on the economic front, they have to agree to reasonable proposals on economic reforms,” he said.

“If the opposition wins (in the 2004 presidential election), they’ll need it as badly as the present administration.”

On top of several tax reform measures to calm financial markets spooked by a burgeoning budget deficit, Arroyo hopes to rid banks of their bad loans worth billions of dollars to encourage new lending.

She has asked Congress to pass laws creating private sector-led asset management companies, an electricity transmission franchise to launch the privatization of the state power utility, and amendments to the bankruptcy law to make it easier to foreclose on the assets of delinquent corporate borrowers.

Her get-tough approach also means she would be unlikely to lift a finger to pardon death row convicts awaiting execution this year for rapes and kidnappings.

Security aides have called out more than 10,000 troops and police to control planned street protests Monday by leftist groups and Estrada supporters.