Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has just about everything a Philippine President could desire. Her middle name, for starters, reminds Filipinos of former President Diosdado Macapagal, her dad. (Arroyo says she is looking forward to moving into to her old bedroom in MalacaNang Palace, the presidential residence.) Though 53 years old, she resembles a delicate ingEnue, a plus in the appearance-crazy Philippines. A Ph.D. in economics gives great gravitas. In office, Arroyo intends to be the reverse image of her disgraced predecessor, Joseph Estrada: brainy, focused and, well, sober. "I won't be drinking with my friends," she tells Time.
It doesn't hurt that Arroyo assumes the presidency on a massive wave of public approval. How many Presidents get pushed into office by a People Power revolution? "We need a leader who is strict, and who will implement the rule of law," says Enrique Gonzaga, a 38-year-old taxi driver. "It's a good thing this is all finished. Now, we start over again."
Indeed, it's happened before, and like predecessor Corazon Aquino, Arroyo will need all of her assets plus some to succeed in one of Asia's most difficult jobs. Arroyo has an easier lot than Aquino in 1986 she doesn't have to dismantle a 20-year dictatorship. But Estrada left a whole lot of garbage behind, literally: Manila is inundated with uncollected trash due to bad planning by Estrada's administration. (Ironically, and possibly symbolically, the rankest part of town is now EDSA, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos managed to evict a President and also make quite a mess.)
In fact, when the People Power afterglow fades and the political Cinderella gets down to work, she may feel like a sweeper following the elephants in a parade. The peso is at a historic low, economic growth is stalled and public debt is at record levels, which is triggering concern at the International Monetary Fund. The Philippine economy, bypassed long ago by the Asian Economic Miracle, might have found a niche in the New Economy, but any such hopes were put on hold by the Estrada debacle, which plunged the Philippines into its worst crisis of confidence since the Marcos years.
Those deep economic troubles are unlikely to disappear with Estrada, as Arroyo concedes. "Things are so bad now," she says. "Oh yes, they can still get worse." Still, Arroyo has had a shadow cabinet since she quit Estrada's cabinet in October, and says she has big ideas for plugging the Philippines into the global economy. She talks about "structural reforms" and "a level playing field" the kind of hip, business jargon that never escaped Estrada's lips. "Things can get better under us," she insists.
Arroyo says she has two role models: Cory Aquino and her father. As for the latter, she is quick to note that during his days in the presidential palace, from 1961-65, the Philippines was Asia's star economic performer after Japan. Surprisingly, the mother of three is a relatively unknown figure across the nation, far less understood and loved than Aquino at the conclusion of the first People Power, despite her political pedigree and a stunning success in the 1998 vice presidential election. (In the Philippine system, voters choose presidents and vice presidents separately, and Arroyo got more votes than the highly popular Estrada.)
Competence is all over her resumE. Born in Manila, Arroyo had an unusual upbringing. At the precocious age of four, she chose to live with her maternal grandmother in Iligan, a town on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The reason: she was jealous of a newborn brother. She stayed there for three years, and then split her time between Manila and Mindanao until the age of 11. (As President, Arroyo says she will concentrate on the separatist problem that has plagued Mindanao for decades.) At 14, she moved into MalacaNang with her father. She was always a strong student, earning the top grades in her Catholic girls' high school. (She was valedictorian at graduation.) For two years she studied economics at Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University at the same time as Bill Clinton, whom she knew before returning to the Philippines. Her career goal was to be a teacher, a path she followed for a few years before marrying and deciding to return to school to get a Ph.D. from the University of the Philippines. When Aquino came to power, Arroyo was appointed undersecretary of trade and industry, and she remains passionate about the need for freer trade and increased foreign investment for the Philippines. Arroyo won a Senate seat in 1992 and helped write 55 laws on economic and social reform.
Arroyo reads the Bible every day; she also has daily sessions with a hairdresser and makeup artist. It's a measure of her readiness for the world stage that when Estrada was first accused of corruption by a former drinking pal, the allegation that would lead ultimately to his impeachment, Arroyo was in Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II.
Controversy hasn't entirely escaped the new President. In October, when Estrada was accused of taking a cut of proceeds from an illegal gambling racket known as jueteng, Arroyo got loudly questioned about her own personal connection with Bong Pineda, an alleged provincial jueteng boss. Arroyo is godmother to one of Pineda's sons. She flatly denies any impropriety, saying she doesn't associate with Pineda or his crowd. "I don't drink with them," she tells Time. "I don't play mah-jongg with them." When she was asked to be godmother, she says she got counsel from Jaime Cardinal Sin, the archbishop of Manila. "Cardinal Sin said, as a Christian, if I am asked to be a godmother, it is my Christian duty," she relates, "because the sins of the father are not the sins of the son." In addition, Arroyo has included leftist groups in her three-month anti-Estrada opposition coalition; now that she's in power, they could try to water down her pro-globalization bias. That's another echo of the past: Aquino had similar ideological clashes within her government. More déjà vu: change sometimes comes fast in the Philippines but many things stay the same.