Endgame for Estrada

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2001, 12:00am

Precisely how the presidency of Joseph Estrada will come to an end was not entirely clear early today, but it appears he will leave office and perhaps his country by May at the latest. Even a tenure that long is problematical, for his growing and increasingly powerful opponents have rejected his offer to hold new Philippine elections that month - voting that would exclude himself as a candidate.

Instead, most of Cabinet, the chiefs of the armed services and leaders of the business elite have concluded that the best way Mr Estrada can help his troubled nation is to step down immediately. The army chief, for example, said the President should 'exit with dignity', while the central bank governor has asked him to resign 'to preserve the economy and the banking system'.

That Mr Estrada has proven a failure as President comes as little surprise to many of his countrymen and outside observers. They dismissed him from the beginning as a second-rate actor who was stunningly unqualified for high office, despite having served as a city mayor. But Mr Estrada earned support from many of the nation's poorest voters, who may have confused the man with the movie star who often portrayed heroes who helped the downtrodden.

As President, Mr Estrada won some early tolerance from sceptics, for his initial policies, and some appointments appeared wiser than they expected. But he never made the jump from silver screen to national leader as did another veteran actor - Ronald Reagan - and that era of good feeling did not last long. His administration was soon fighting allegations of corruption, scandal and incompetence, and these grew more pervasive. As economic prospects dimmed, business leaders joined his foes.

A form of 'people power', reinforced by national leaders, has asserted itself, as it did against the late Ferdinand Marcos. This leaves Mr Estrada little choice but to negotiate his terms of surrender. The Marcos precedent suggests he may go into exile soon, where - if the allegations are correct - he has money enough to sustain his preferred lifestyle.

The challenge now is for Vice-President Gloria Arroyo to restore confidence in the political system and economy. Her country deserves better leadership than Mr Estrada had the ability to provide.