Arroyo rules herself out of 2004 election


President Gloria Arroyo stunned the Philippines this morning by saying she would not contest the 2004 presidential election because deep political divisions had made the country virtually ungovernable.

She said her unconventional rise to the presidency without an electoral mandate after the toppling of popularly-elected leader Mr Joseph Estrada last year had caused deep splits within the impoverished country and dampened economic growth prospects.

"In view of all these factors I have decided not to run for president during the elections of 2004," the 55-year-old grandmother said in this northern resort city, where she has been taking an extended Christmas holiday.

"If I were to run, it would require a major political effort on my part. But since I am among the principal figures in the divisive national events of the last two or three years, my political efforts can only result in never ending divisiveness."

She said she would devote her remaining 18 months in office to "strengthening the economy, to create more jobs, and to encourage business activity that is unhampered by corruption and red tape."

Ms Arroyo, an economist daughter of a former president who is known for her short fuse, has charted a largely free market and pro-US policy since being sworn into office in January last year.

But the economy has been trapped in low-growth mode since the mid-1997 Asian crisis, and four in 10 Filipinos live on less than a dollar a day. Government initiatives have been hamstrung by lack of revenue.

She said that as long as people doubted her intentions because of the looming 2004 vote, "sincere efforts to launch government programs will run the risk of being derailed by political fighting leading up to the elections."

Her surprise announcement was greeted with disbelief and some admiration, and politicians across the political divide heaped praise on her decision to essentially turn herself into a political lameduck.