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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 14:29 GMT
Arroyo's 'lives for votes' gamble
By Sarah Toms

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo has stoked controversy by lifting a moratorium on executions, just months before the largely Roman Catholic country holds presidential elections.

The first executions - of convicted kidnappers Roberto Lara and Roderick Licayan - were due to have taken place on Friday, until the Supreme Court suspended the order for 30 days to consider new evidence.

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo
Mrs Arroyo has taken a strong stance on a highly-divisive issue
But with Mrs Arroyo trailing movie star Fernando Poe Jr and former education secretary Raul Roco in opinion polls ahead of the 10 May elections, observers are split over whether her move will win or cost her votes.

Roman Catholic clerics, who staged protests and vigils to try to persuade the president to change her mind, insist it could cost her dearly, given that 80% of the country's 82 million people are Roman Catholics.

"The intention is to project a tough image of herself against kidnapping and crime by lifting the moratorium. But it will have a negative effect on her," Bishop Pedro Arigo, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care, told BBC News Online.

"The Catholics will reconsider support for the administration and the president because of her stand on the death penalty, and we are encouraging people to vote for candidates who are pro-life," he said.

Public concern

Some analysts, though, said the majority of Filipinos favour the death penalty and that the president's stance on crime could boost her chances at the ballot box.

Fernando Poe, Jr
Former film star Fernando Poe Jnr is ahead in polls

"The Roman Catholic church, human rights groups and politically correct groups are against it, but everyone else wants a strong law and order hand," said Alex Magno, a political commentator and speechwriter for Ms Arroyo.

"So the President is addressing the three quarters of public opinion that favours the death penalty, an opinion shaped by exasperation over high-profile crime, kidnappings and bank robberies."

Mrs Arroyo's decision to lift the moratorium followed a rash of kidnappings that led to questions about her administration's ability to fight crime, in a country where 6,500 people are murdered each year.

"Most of the business community is disturbed. Public polls say after jobs, food and housing that peace and order rates highly. The president, like any other politicians, wants to see a dramatic change," said Mr Magno.

Some critics have accused the president of swapping the lives of prisoners for votes - particularly those of the small but economically powerful ethnic Chinese community that has been targeted by kidnappers.

"We have the Chinese Filipino community demanding the death penalty and they are willing to pay, in terms of campaigning and donations," Mr Magno said.

Whether or not Mr Lara and Mr Licayan escape a trip to the death chamber in late February, when the court freeze expires, Ms Arroyo may hope she has made her point about her commitment to the battle against crime.

Philippines delays executions
28 Jan 04  |  Asia-Pacific
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26 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Gloria Arroyo
28 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: The Philippines
09 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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