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Philippine President Backs Down on Constitutional Change

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Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, faced with prospect of large street protests, has backed down from plans for a constitutional change that would bypass the opposition-led Senate. The influential Roman Catholic Church, joined by the political opposition and former President Corazon Aquino, has called for a prayer rally to protest what church leaders view as illegitimate moves to change the constitution. Douglas Bakshian has more from Manila.

President Arroyo said Thursday that Philippine democracy will find the right opportunity for charter reform, "at a time when the people deem it ripe and needful, and in the manner they deem proper." She called for the nation to unify for the sake of its future.

Her decision to end efforts for now to change the constitution follows sharp criticism from Roman Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines. They attacked moves by pro-administration lawmakers in the House of Representatives to start drafting a charter for a new constitution that would abolish the opposition-led Senate. The House had voted to convene a constituent assembly that would allow it alone to push through the measure, without the Senate's consent.

The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, said the House action was "scandalously immoral" and "fraudulently illegitimate." He called for a prayer rally in Manila Sunday to address what he described as a crisis of leadership in the country.

House lawmakers have since dropped the charter plan, but the anger remains. Sunday's protest is expected to continue. Former President Corazon Aquino, a symbol of democracy, is likely to take a prominent role.

Analysts say the Church can sway the political balance in this predominantly Catholic nation.

"It's the only institution that has matched the government with a network down to the grassroots level," said Ramon Casiple, who is with the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms. "It is an institutional strength. "¦ If the Church really makes a move it will have a big impact on the political scene."

The constitutional change President Arroyo favored would have shifted the country from a U.S.-style two-chamber legislature to a single-house parliamentary system. Mrs. Arroyo said the current system leads to political gridlock and stalls needed reforms.

But the opposition says the plan was just a way for her to cling to power.

President Arroyo has survived two impeachment attempts and at least one coup plot. The opposition accuses her of cheating in the 2004 election, an allegation she denies.

By Douglas Bakshian for VOA News

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