MANILA, Philippines?It was supposed to be President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s last State of the Nation Address (SONA), but she made no clear declaration she was ready to hand over the reins of power to a successor on June 30, 2010.
In her ninth SONA before a joint session of Congress, a fighting Ms Arroyo declared that her term would end in 2010.
?At the end of this speech, I shall step down from this stage,? she said, pausing. Then she added, smiling: ?But not from the presidency.? This drew applause from the mostly pro-Arroyo audience in the session hall and gallery of the House of Representatives.
?My term does not end until next year. Until then, I will fight for the ordinary Filipino. The nation comes first. There is much to do as head of state?to the very last day,? she said.
A broad spectrum of society has accused Ms Arroyo of plotting to keep her grip on power beyond 2010 either through the House-initiated Charter change or emergency rule.
Aided by a PowerPoint presentation, videos and human props, and interrupted by over 100 rounds of applause, Ms Arroyo declared that she ?never expressed the desire to extend myself beyond my term.?
?Many of those who accuse me of it tried to cling, like nails, to their posts,? she said.
She, however, gave no categorical word she was committed to a smooth turnover of power in June 2010.
This was in sharp contrast to the unequivocal declaration of President Corazon Aquino in her final SONA on July 22, 1991 that she would transfer power to a successor.
In her speech, described as more of a ?valedictory,? Aquino kept away from citing numbers and statistics and said that there was one ?steadfast, unalloyed? achievement that was destined to outlive present problems or future progress?democracy.
She promised that she would be there for the peaceful transfer of power in June 1992, the swearing-in of her successor.
Calling on the military leaders by name, Aquino asked them and their men to assure clean and honest elections in May 1992. In parting, she said: ?Maraming salamat sa inyong lahat, at paalam (Thank you everyone and goodbye).?
In her hour-long address, combative in tone that turned emotional at the end, Ms Arroyo lashed out at critics, including her predecessors, for opposing Charter change and for accusing her of plotting to impose martial law.
Wearing a reddish pink Filipiniana gown by Inno Sotto, she said she had been working hard, unknown to critics.
?There isn?t a day I do not work at my job or a waking moment when I do not think through a work-related problem ... Our people deserve a government that works just as hard as they do,? she said.
She added: ?Every step forward must be taken in the teeth of political pressures and economic constraints that could push you two steps back if you flinch and falter. I have not flinched, I have not faltered,? she said.
Critics frightened by shadows
She said she had not done any of the things that scared her worst critics. ?They are frightened by their own shadows.?
The President said that in the face of attempted coups, she issued emergency proclamations just in case. ?But I was able to resolve these military crises with the ordinary powers of my office. My critics call it dictatorship. I call it determination. We know it as strong government,? she said.
?But I never declared martial law, though they are running scared as if I did. In truth, what they are really afraid of is their weakness in the face of this self-imagined threat,? she said.
?I say to them: do not tell us what we all know, that democracy can be threatened. Tell us what you will do when it is attacked. I know what to do,? she added.
Ms Arroyo also enumerated the legacies of her eight-year, scandal-plagued presidency, including the enactment of key legislation leading to cheaper medicine, lower power costs and cheaper rent.
She specifically mentioned the cheaper medicines law, and Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, and the rent control law.
The enactment of the cheaper medicines law prodded drug companies to come up with low-cost generics and brands, and to slash by half the prices of 16 commonly prescribed medicines, Ms Arroyo said.
She said she was placing other drugs under a maximum retail price.
The President said the next generation would also benefit from lower public debt to gross domestic product ratio, and lower foreign debt.
Ms Arroyo said the ?unpopular fiscal reforms,? mainly taxes, taken by the administration helped the economy grow over the years and weather the global economic crisis.
?The state of our nation is a strong economy. Good news for our people, bad news for our critics,? she said.
Ms Arroyo also mentioned her administration?s huge investments in infrastructure, poverty mitigation, agrarian reform, education, and emergency livelihood, among other things, using ?human faces? and videos as in her previous SONA.
She acknowledged former overseas worker Gigi Gabiola who found employment at the labor department under the government emergency livelihood program; Badjao Tarnati Dannawi, who was taught modern fish farming; Mylene Amerol-Macumbal, the first Muslim woman bar topnotcher; Jennifer Silbor, who was given training on medical transcription; and rebel returnee Leah de la Cruz.
She also acknowledged boxing champ Manny Pacquiao for his industry and strong faith in God.
Ms Arroyo also outlined her agenda for the Cabinet and Congress, as she vowed to work to boost tax revenues through improved collections and new sin taxes.
Tax alcohol, not books
She said taxes should come from alcohol and tobacco, and not from books.
?Tax hazards to lungs and livers, do not tax minds. Revenues from taxes on alcohol and cigarettes should go to health and education,? she said, mentioning the Philhealth premiums of the poor and construction of classrooms as possible recipients of these revenues.
Ms Arroyo also called on Congress to enact the Philippine Security Transport Authority Law, amend the Public Service Law over growing concerns about unsolicited or spam messages by telecommunication companies; regularize the Pantawid Pamilya Program, pass the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program extension bill (including the condonation of the P42-billion land reform liability) and Simplified Net Income Taxation, and fund the deployment of more police on the streets.
?Some say that after this SONA, it will all be politics. Sorry, but there?s more work,? she said.
Ms Arroyo also said there were good prospects for peace talks with the communist New People?s Army and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
She defended herself on her low rating, even as she conceded there was much work to do between now and 2010, especially in the face of the global economic slump.
?I did not become President to be popular. To work, to lead, to protect and preserve our country, our people, that is why I became President,? she said.
Toward the end of her speech, Ms Arroyo turned misty after thanking the people for ?allowing me to serve as your President.? With Eliza Victoria, Inquirer Research