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Arroyo seen on firmer ground

MANILA, Tuesday (Reuters,AFP) The political tide may have turned in favour of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo amid indications she would accept constitutional reform as a way out of her worst crisis, newspapers said on Tuesday.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer said Arroyo was seriously considering a proposal by former president Fidel Ramos for her to stay on as caretaker to oversee a change to a parliamentary system, followed by a referendum on a new charter and fresh elections next year.

The influential Ramos came out in support of Arroyo last week at a crucial time following the resignation of her economic managers and amid mounting calls from political and business allies for her to resign over allegations of electoral fraud.

Arroyo received another crucial boost on Sunday when the country's powerful Catholic bishops avoided calling on her to resign. aThe Inquirer said Arroyo was laying the groundwork for constitutional change by pressing for the merger of two parties loyal to her in the lower house of Congress.

"As soon as things are very much in control, we are willing to sit down and discuss the proposals but there is no timetable yet," it quoted Arroyo's spokesman Ignacio Bunye as saying.

The Philippine Star newspaper agreed that Arroyo was out of immediate danger. "There were signs yesterday that certain sectors were heeding the Catholic bishops' call for giving constitutional processes and the rule of law a chance to work," it said in an editorial. Congress is due to take up an impeachment motion against Arroyo when it returns from recess on July 25. But the opposition is reluctant to pursue that route because of the president's majorities in both houses.

Meanwhile Philippine opposition groups are vowing huge protests against embattled Arroyo this week, with police saying her foes have a war-chest and plans to build up the crowds to 1 million people.

Recent anti-Arroyo rallies have had 8,000 marchers at most, a far cry from the "people power" revolts by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada as president in 2001.

A crowd above 20,000 at a planned rally on Wednesday might mark a shift in public anger against Arroyo but the protests must be sustained to really threaten her, said Tom Green, executive director of risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments.

"The danger is if the crowds grow and start marching on the presidential palace, then the military could say it might not be able to guarantee the safety of the president and her family because they don't want to shoot these people," he said.

The military, the source of a dozen coup attempts in the last two decades, has stressed its neutrality in a political crisis stemming from allegations of vote-rigging by Arroyo in last year's election and corruption within her family.

The Philippine National Police went on maximum alert on Tuesday, concerned that communist rebels or Muslim militants might try to infiltrate the marches set by Arroyo's opponents for the Makati financial district in the heart of Manila.

"They intend to gather 100,000 people on Wednesday and they intend to increase it to 500,000 to 1 million by Friday until Sunday," a police intelligence officer told reporters, asking not to be named.

Earlier a respected former Philippine leader repeated calls for President Arroyo to resign over a political scandal but a defiant Arroyo was determined to ride out the crisis, according to aides.

Former president Corazon Aquino, once one of Arroyo's closest allies, urged her to "make the supreme sacrifice" and hand over power to Vice-President Noli de Castro for the sake of the country. Aquino said there were only two constitutional options to end the political crisis: a handover of power to the vice president or impeachment.

"I ask the president to spare our country and herself from this second option," she said. Aides said Arroyo would not quit despite the resignation of 10 senior cabinet members last Friday. Some influential business leaders, former political allies and many academics have also urged her to step down.

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