The ego has landed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am

On October 25, just 43 days after being sentenced to life in jail by an anti-graft court for the crime of plunder, the Philippines' disgraced former leader, Joseph Estrada, walked free with a presidential pardon.

Those who had suspected that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would eventually let Mr Estrada off were still stunned by the swiftness of the move and outraged by reports the government negotiated with him over the terms of his release.

Mrs Arroyo's 'executive clemency' wipes clean Mr Estrada's criminal record and restores his civil and political rights, although his ill-gotten wealth remains forfeit. For his part, the deposed president had to promise he wouldn't run for office. He hasn't spent a moment inside a jail cell, having been under house arrest since 2001 and having lived in a comfortable villa since 2004. He has not admitted any guilt, much less shown contrition.

'It's a travesty of justice,' said Vergel Santos, of the influential Business World newspaper. It's also the latest development in a duel between Mrs Arroyo, 60, and Mr Estrada, 70, that has defined politics in the Philippines for six years.

Since 2001 most politicians have been identified as either pro-Arroyo or pro-'Erap'. Supporters of the pardon argue it will heal the split and forge reconciliation.

'This pardon is the right solution at the right time,' said Senator Edgardo Angara, once Mr Estrada's executive secretary and now an Arroyo ally. 'If you delayed this, you would have just intensified the social and political restiveness.'

Yet the pardon immediately created new rifts, this time among Mr Estrada's supporters. They were dismayed and confused by their hero's prompt acceptance of his foe's mercy. When, shortly after his release, Mr Estrada appeared before thousands of well-wishing fans and called on them to applaud Mrs Arroyo, nobody clapped. Political columnist Amando Doronila wrote that the reprieve 'has shattered Estrada's credibility ... there is widespread suspicion that he has sold out to the administration'.

Reli German, a former schoolmate of and former chief political strategist for Mr Estrada who now works for Mrs Arroyo, said the pardon had immobilised Mr Estrada politically. 'It has diminished him as a leader of the opposition. Even now we hear some grumbling and questions.'

A squabbling Estrada camp would suit Mrs Arroyo. Her administration, mired in corruption scandals and threatened by political crisis, could do with fewer enemies, and Mr Estrada has always been the biggest foe. Even when he was under house arrest, he is thought to have backed and financed several plots to forcibly oust Mrs Arroyo. In 2001, 30,000 of his outraged supporters assaulted the presidential palace, trying to overthrow her. Four people died and dozens were injured.

Two years ago, Mr Estrada told the South China Morning Post that Mrs Arroyo would be overthrown, and said she could join him in his villa: 'I have a room specially prepared for her - and a pony, too.'

But after a cabinet official hand-delivered his reprieve, Mr Estrada appeared to be singing a different tune. Publicly thanking 'President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo' [a phrase he had avoided using], he promised to help her government fight poverty and vowed to spend the rest of his life as 'plain citizen Estrada'. Arroyo officials said they wouldn't rule out giving the disgraced president a government position.

A fresh twist came this week when Mr Estrada appeared to change tack, saying the only post he was interested in politically was that of president, and that Mrs Arroyo should face corruption charges through an impeachment trial. His outburst came as he was awaiting a visit from a court official asking him to turn over to the government 731 million pesos (HK$130.3 million) and his palatial Manila mansion.

Even to a country used to bizarre politics, the plot twists seem worthy of a soap opera. The characters could not be more different. In one corner is an actor turned politician who used his reputation as a two-fisted, womanising, hard-drinking oaf to become president; in the other, his vice-president, an aloof and colourless economist, a university classmate of Bill Clinton, a devout Catholic, swept into power by a popular uprising.

Aprodicio and Eleanor Laquian, a husband and wife team of technocrats who worked closely with Mr Estrada when he was president, wrote a tell-all book about their experience. They noted: 'Erap could not stand intellectuals. He called them mayabang [braggarts] or pasikat [show-offs] and KIAs [know-it-alls].' Trying to explain Mr Estrada's hold on the poor, the Laquians said: 'Many poor people probably recognised Erap's excesses and transgressions as things they would have loved to do themselves.'

In contrast, Senator Angara said: 'Gloria [Mrs Arroyo] is the cold economist type who weighs the problems before she acts. Analytical, logical and slower.'

Yet they do have some things in common. Both epitomise 'traditional politics', the system of elite patronage based on the abuse of public power and funds for the benefit of families, friends and province mates.

Mr Estrada's presidency was characterised by 'mansions, millions and mistresses' - a bacchanalia featuring the president pursuing women, holding late-night drinking sessions with cronies, providing mansions to girlfriends and taking commissions from illegal gambling syndicates. The Laquians recalled how, despite his image as being a man of the common people, Mr Estrada drank expensive wine from golden goblets. After he was deposed, visitors marvelled at the solid gold fittings in his bathroom.

People who crossed Mr Estrada tended to fare poorly. A campaign strategist whom he suspected of being a turncoat was kidnapped by the police, tortured and executed. A casino worker who released a video of the president gambling with a crony was picked up by uniformed men and later found dead.

Mrs Arroyo's ascent to power was marked with hopes she would break with the past. Instead, her government lurched from one scandal to another. Only last month, officials and lawmakers invited to the presidential palace were handed brown bags stuffed with cash. Mrs Arroyo is suspected of having cheated in the 2004 elections and her tenure has seen the rise of her family's dynastic power. Two sons and a brother-in-law are all in Congress, and her husband has been accused of taking over the illegal gambling funds that Mr Estrada received.

Senator Angara said: 'Both of them have a common populist outlook. Are they sincere? I don't want to go into motivation.'

Where the two differed, Mr Santos said, was that 'Arroyo is ruthless, Estrada is lazy'.

The Laquians noted how 'once Erap moved to the presidential palace it became quite clear he was unprepared for the job he had worked so hard to get'.

Knowing what to do with power hasn't been hard for Mrs Arroyo. In fending off at least two coup plots and as many impeachment attempts, she declared a state of rebellion in 2001, a state of emergency last year, and hasn't hesitated to reward political allies.

In a recording of what is believed to be Mrs Arroyo talking to an election official in 2004, she apparently agrees to a proposal to kidnap a witness to election fraud. Under her rule, the Philippines has become the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist (after Iraq), and hundreds of activists have been murdered.

On her way to becoming her country's longest-serving president after dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Mrs Arroyo has also become the most unpopular.

Benjamin Diokno, who used to be Mr Estrada's budget secretary, said: 'Erap is well-loved and Mrs Arroyo is hated by a lot of people.' A few months ago, a survey indicated that Mr Estrada enjoyed a higher trust rating than the president. Mr Estrada probably won't forget the humiliation he felt when, during his arrest in 2001, he was all but dragged from his house to a police camp to have his fingerprints and mugshot taken. Professor Diokno said: 'There is no love between the two of them. She put Estrada in prison.'

The political benefits of pardoning Mr Estrada are likely to be short term only. As Mr Santos said: 'If only Mrs Arroyo could be sure that Estrada's hordes could be kept out of the streets. I think she might be counting on his word, which possibly he gave.'

Mr German thinks Mrs Arroyo is playing a more complex game. Rather than merely neutralising Mr Estrada's support, 'it would be to her advantage to see the masses active and supporting her fully'. He said the plan would probably unfold by the first quarter of next year.

However the feud shapes up, its biggest casualty has been the justice system. The Makati Business Club said Mr Estrada's pardon 'may bring some political quietude in the very short term but it also pulls down the country in the eyes of potential investors ... the message they read is that the corrupt in this country are not punished'.

That state of affairs is unlikely to change until more Filipinos realise they've been conditioned by both sides to believe that the only choices are Mrs Arroyo and Mr Estrada. 'A nation of decent human beings does not deserve leaders like these,' Mr Santos said.