Arroyo using pardon as a 'political ploy'
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's decision to free her former boss and rival Joseph Estrada is being viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Critics see the manoeuvre as a desperate act of political expediency, designed to shore up Mrs Arroyo's rickety presidency with the support of the still-popular Estrada and his backers in the restive Philippines Congress.
It was also seen as a simple attempt to divert attention from a series of ongoing scandals.
'The early pardon of Estrada by President Arroyo is timed to blunt the negative impact of the damning testimony of Joey de Venecia versus Mrs Arroyo and First Gentleman Mike Arroyo,' said Renato Reyes, spokesman for left-wing group Bayan. He was referring to a testimony at a Senate hearing on Thursday by the businessman son of House Speaker Jose de Venecia, who implicated Mrs Arroyo and her husband in a bribery scandal involving a recently shelved US$329 million telecom deal with Chinese company ZTE.
Bertie Lim, spokesman for the influential Makati Business Club, also claimed Mrs Arroyo was prompted to sign the pardon out of political expediency. 'We are disappointed especially with the timing because there are many controversies happening now,' he said.
But Bayan Congressman Teodoro Casi?o said Estrada's pardon may not entirely protect Mrs Arroyo, who faces ongoing calls for her resignation.
He said any gratitude felt by Estrada's supporters in congress did not bind all his allies because 'the opposition is not entirely a monolithic entity. There will probably be some who will feel indebted to Mrs Arroyo, but a greater number will not feel that way'.
Publicly, at least, there was no concession from the Estrada camp that it would now go easy on Mrs Arroyo.
Estrada's son, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, said that while he was thankful to the president, 'if there are anomalies in this government, I will continue to expose it. As an opposition [member], I will not change my view'.
His mother, former senator Loi Ejercito, and Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay, a prominent opposition leader, separately said they, too, would remain 'with the opposition'.
The move could even backfire on Mrs Arroyo, who served as Estrada's vice-president before he was ousted. One of her political allies, former president Fidel Ramos, issued a strong objection to the deal, calling it a 'dangerous proposal' because Estrada retained such a significant following.
He warned that she could find herself 'suffering the same fate as Estrada', who was forced to vacate his office in the face of mounting protests. He also hinted at strained ties between Mrs Arroyo and Mr De Venecia.
Both the president and her supporters have portrayed the pardon as an act of national reconciliation. Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said everyone should set aside political squabbling and 'look to the future, seize its opportunities, and forge ahead with unity and patriotism'.
Ronaldo Puno, Mrs Arroyo's interior and local government secretary who brokered the deal, called the pardon a 'very major step' towards reconciliation and praised Estrada and Mrs Arroyo's 'willingness to face political risks'. He said the move would defuse the tense political situation.