Scandal-plagued Joseph Estrada clings to power, as the ranks of those seeking to impeach the Philippine President swell
By DAVID LIEBHOLD
The Vice President says she's ready to take over
The coalition of forces lined up against Philippine President Joseph Estrada grows more imposing by the day. "History may treat you more kindly if you go peacefully and you go now," former President Corazon Aquino advised him at a rain-soaked rally in Basig City on Nov. 4. Added Cardinal Jaime Sin at the same demonstration: "Sometimes it is more courageous to withdraw and seek refuge than to face the impending calamity." Former President Fidel Ramos was there, as was Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is already drafting a program for her first 100 days in office. Also on the stage, as if to serve as living proof of Estrada's culpability, was provincial governor Luis Singson, the man who claims he delivered to the President $8 million in proceeds from the illegal numbers game known as jueteng.
But the most vital critics may not even have been therethe 40-odd legislators who had abandoned Estrada's ruling coalition the day before. The defections have rewritten the odds of Estrada hanging on in the face of corruption charges: last week, 47 members of the justice committee voted to send an impeachment bill to the full House of Representatives; only 4 members voted against the motion. Now the body, which barely two weeks ago looked to be solidly controlled by Estrada, seems certain to pass the bill. Opposition leaders say they have nearly 100 representatives on their side, and they need only 73.
His confidence is not entirely misplaced. Not all of the recent defectionsat least 46 in the House and 14 in the Senate, including the leaders of both bodieswill necessarily translate into votes against the President. Senator and former basketball star Robert Jaworski, who resigned from Estrada's coalition on Nov. 4, said he did so "to avoid any suspicion of bias" during an impeachment trial. And there is a fair chance that the numbers will swing back in Estrada's favor, if public opinion stays on his side. A survey conducted last week by pollster Social Weather Stations found that 44% of Filipinos did not agree with calls for the President's resignation (compared with 29% who agreed). A pro-Estrada prayer meeting at Manila's Luneta Stadium on Saturday drew hundreds of thousands of supportersconsiderably more than the 80,000 who attended Aquino and Sin's rally the previous week. "Erap will be my President forever," says Marife Bautista, 25, using Estrada's nickname. She is struggling to raise two children in a Makati slum without running water. "He is our protector. He is one of us."
Sentiments like those may yet upset the plans of opposition figures who watched with dismay in 1998 as voters elected the hard-drinking, womanizing former movie star in a landslide. While the poor probably have some romantic ideas about Estradawho was born into a middle-class family and whose personal wealth is now estimated to be in the millions of dollarsthey may also have good reason to feel disillusioned with the more refined, land-owning Elites that produced former presidents like Aquino and Ramos. "How much did they reduce the number of poor people? How much did they raise the wages of factory workers? The answers are not very flattering," says political scientist Felipe Miranda.
A large part of the opposition's argument is that the longer Estrada stays in power, the more damage he does to the Philippine economy and thus to the poor. The President himself concedes that the economy is a "picture of contradiction" in which, "despite our healthy fundamentals, we are faced with negative business perception." He prefers not to attribute this to the scandal plaguing his presidency. But after the justice committee vote, a heartened Manila stock index shot up a remarkable 16% and the pesowhich had fallen to historic lowsrallied 6% to 48.05 to the dollar.
Some analysts argue that much of the downdraft has been due to phenomena beyond Estrada's control, like the strength of the U.S. dollar and the high price of oil on world markets. Even forcing him to resign, they say, would not solve all of Manila's problems. "Those external factors will remain even with the ouster of President Estrada," says Francisco Nemenzo, president of the University of the Philippines in Manila.
Still, if nothing else, a growing moral outrage may guarantee that the former actor is ultimately pushed offstage. "The crisis has already escalated to the point of threatening a paralysis in government and the collapse of the economy," says House Speaker Manuel Villar. "We cannot allow this to happen." Estrada's detractors allege that the as-yet-unproven scandals concerning jueteng, kickbacks and mansions for his mistresses are only the tip of the iceberg, that his presidency has fostered corruption and cronyism on a massive scale. Some who have followed the testimony against Estrada closely, like political scientist Roland Simbulan, claim that "organized crime has been able to penetrate the highest level of our governmentthe presidency." Philippine politics was not exactly clean in the past, Simbulan says, "but Erap has introduced the most vulgar kind of cronyism and corruption that leans heavily on criminal syndicates."
Estrada has likened his increasingly lonely plight to that of a movie hero "who gets beaten up in the beginning but still wins in the end." Yet given the breakneck pace of events over the past two weeks, there's no ruling out a sudden resignation. Aquino says she has been holding talks with Estrada's Finance Secretary, Jose Pardo, aimed at finding a way for the President to resign with some vestige of dignity. (Arroyowho would assume the presidency and thus be the one to grant any pardontells Time that the negotiations were authorized by her.) Estrada maintains that he is not attempting to negotiate a retreat, and that he will prove his innocence in any Senate trial.
In all the tumult, there is a bright spot: although careers and fortunes are on the line, so far there are no signs that either side of the dispute is considering extra-constitutional measures to further its cause. The military brass has poured cold water on rumors that troops have been restive in recent days, and legislative and executive procedures have been observed without mishap. "Now we have a situation where the claims about democratization are being put to the test," says Miranda. Both Estrada and his foes say that's all they want.
Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Manila
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