Thousands march in Manila in anti-Arroyo protest

MANILA, June 10 (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered in the heart of Manila's financial district on Wednesday, accusing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's allies of trying to amend the constitution and scrap next year's presidential election.

Opposition groups warned of more frequent and bigger street protests in the days ahead until Arroyo and her allies in the lower house of Congress abandon the plan to convene a constituent assembly with the power to change the constitution and lift term limits of elected officials.

Police said 5,000 to 6,000 people marched on Ayala Avenue in Makati City, site of many protests over the years including those that helped topple the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

But the crowds were much smaller than the 30,000 that descended on the same streets in February last year to denounce the involvement of Arroyo's husband in a bloated government broadband project.

Priests in white cassocks and nuns held placards, some of which read, "Gloria forever? Never" while students wore face masks printed with the message "Stop constituent assembly virus."

Office workers from high-rise buildings sprinkled confetti on the protesters as they marched while chanting "Junk Arroyo, junk charter change."

Arroyo will not be eligible to stand in the 2010 election under laws banning more than a single six-year term for the president.

Her supporters have denied any plans to delay the election and said the charter change was necessary to allow economic reform, including removing limits on foreign investment in some sectors and allowing foreign ownership of property.

Analysts warned of potential violence that could seriously hurt the country's slowing economy if the charter change plan was pursued and elections in May 2010 were derailed.

"They might use violence," Benito Lim, political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, told Reuters regarding the protesters. "The police will become tougher and it could be bloody, that could lead to bad things."

Lim said the situation "will have a terrible effect on the economy", with Manila moving closer to a recession after the economy shrank to its lowest in two decades in the first quarter.

For a Q&A on charter change, click on [ID:nMAN472333] Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Sanjeev Miglani