Philippines? Arroyo unveils cabinet reshuffle

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Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Thursday appointed trusted aides and allies to key defence, foreign affairs and justice posts in place of career officials in her first cabinet reshuffle since May?s presidential election.

No changes were announced on the economic team, which faces the challenge of trying to cut poverty by half while wiping out the budget deficit in the next six years. The reshuffle affected close to 30 government posts but brought few fresh faces into the cabinet.

Mrs Macapagal named Avelino Cruz, her former chief legal adviser, as defence secretary. His main task will be trying to control communist insurgents and Muslim separatists while managing restiveness in the armed forces. He replaces Eduardo Ermita, a former army general, who becomes the president?s executive secretary.

Alberto Romulo has been appointed to the post of foreign secretary, replacing Delia Albert, a veteran foreign service professional. Mr Romulo, who was Mrs Macapagal?s executive secretary, assumes the post as the Philippines tries to repair relations with the US, which have been strained since Manila complied with the demands of Iraqi militants holding a Filipino truck driver hostage and withdrew its small peacekeeping force from the country.

Raul Gonzales, a staunch political ally of Mrs Macapagal, was appointed justice secretary, replacing veteran department insider Merceditas Gutierrez. Mr Gonzales said he wants to speed up the prosecution of government cases, many of which are dismissed for lack of evidence.

?The first thing I want to look into is the backlog in the prosecution offices all over the country which is one of the reasons why people, especially the poor, get disenchanted with our system of justice,? he said in a local television interview after his appointment was announced.

Some observers have criticised Mrs Macapagal?s cabinet choices, saying they were largely rewards for key supporters who helped her win the election in May and came at expense of career executives and insiders. Mr Cruz?s appointment as defence chief, for example, raised eyebrows as he does not have a military background.

Mrs Macapagal?s supporters said accountability was her primary consideration in the new appointments. They said she named Mr Cruz rather than a retired general to the defence post to assert civilian supremacy over the military.

?Being an outsider, he might be in a better position to manage the infighting in the armed forces,? said Alexander Magno, a political analyst.

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