'Erap' holds court on revolution and mistresses
The lunch that the pardoned former president Joseph 'Erap' Estrada laid out for a dozen foreign correspondents was unexpected: the fish was the size of a toddler, the steamed prawns the length of human hands and the suckling pig roasted to perfection.
But the conversation that flowed with the eight-course meal - where the only drink served was, surprisingly, water - was vintage Erap. Between puffs of his favourite Lucky Strike cigarette, Mr Estrada cracked self-deprecating jokes while deftly answering questions about his political plans, his political enemies and his mistresses.
Mr Estrada looked the picture of Mr Cool in a checked shirt and a pair of brown chinos as he held court in his mansion with marble floors and costly bric-a-brac last Sunday.
Gone were the puffy eyes and wounded look, five months after being pardoned and freed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for his conviction on the capital crime of plunder last September.
Gone too was the profuse gratitude he had expressed towards her upon his release. He did not owe her anything, 'of course not,' he said.
'She grabbed power from me and stole the victory of my friend FPJ,' referring to the late actor Fernando Poe Jnr, whom Mrs Arroyo defeated in the 2004 polls, widely believed to be tainted with fraud. He said he had forgiven everyone who had 'wronged' him 'except the sitting president'. That apparently included the Foreign Correspondents' Association of the Philippines (Focap), which had dealt his presidency a heavy blow by grilling him about his money scandals in 2000.
Mr Estrada had every reason not to meet Focap members again. Last month, a press briefing with it ended on a sour note when a reporter hammered him on how he could become a moral crusader after being convicted of plunder.
Mr Estrada seemed to have brushed all these setbacks aside, saying 'to live a peaceful life, forget all the good things you did to others and also forget all the wrong things others did to you', though Mrs Arroyo was 'the exception to the rule'. Among the reasons Mrs Arroyo had cited for pardoning Mr Estrada was his advanced age. He turns 71 next Saturday but has no plans to retire.
He dreams of a political comeback. 'I want to prove them wrong,' he said. 'I want to leave a legacy, that they have all committed wrong in ousting me as president.'
A comeback would be the third in his 30-year political career. In 1967, he lost his first election as mayor of San Juan but took the seat two years later after winning a bruising court battle. In 1986, he was eased out by then president Corazon Aquino's government, but won a Senate seat the following year and the vice-presidency five years later.
Mr Estrada is staging political sorties around the country. He explained he had twice tested the well of his support by fielding his wife, Luisa, for a Senate seat in 2001, four months after being overthrown. She won by 10.5 million votes, close to Mr Estrada's 10.7 million margin in the 10-way presidential polls of 1998.
In 2004, the jailed Mr Estrada enabled his political neophyte son, Jinggoy, to join his wife at the Senate.
Mr Estrada danced around reporters' questions on whether he would run in 2010. 'I have no intention of running; [ask me] after my medical check-up.' For Mr Estrada, the road to rehabilitation may start by filming a comedy, which has interesting political undertones.
The film outfit of the Lopez family, which catapulted two of its TV news anchors to the vice-presidency and the Senate, will produce it. When Mr Estrada was president, he had a falling out with the family despite his eldest daughter, Jacqueline, marrying Manuel 'Beaver' Lopez in what analysts viewed as a political alliance.
Mr Estrada laughed at his critics who had slammed his complicated love life that had scandalised and helped bring down his presidency. 'I have so many loves in life. But I married only one woman. Is there anything wrong with that? Nobody complains. Why are they complaining?' He said his mistresses were 'too numerous to count' and batted away questions on how he managed them.
'If that is wrong, having a child by another woman, I cannot correct a mistake by another mistake,' he said, by way of explaining that he supports all his children.
As last Sunday's visit dragged into the afternoon, Mr Estrada plied the journalists with another multi-course meal. Afterwards, he asked everyone to shut off their microphones and cameras so he could speak 'off the record' about his plan for the country.
Earlier, he had dropped hints about it. For instance, he said, should Mrs Arroyo refuse to step down in 2010 when her term ends, 'I will lead the revolution ... in the twilight of my life I will be prepared to sacrifice that.'
That could be taken as an empty threat but for the fact that Mr Estrada was once a street tough and no stranger to political violence. A fistfight led to a school expulsion in his teens, and he was knifed in a college brawl.
In 1986, when he was deposed as mayor, a person died in the ensuing riot. Shortly after his arrest, supporters rioted at the gates of the presidential palace in May 2001, killing several people.
Many were, therefore, surprised that Mr Estrada left the presidential palace in January 2001 without a fight. 'I did not want bloodshed,' he said. But come 2010, 'it will be a revolution if she does not step down. Blood will flow'. He laughed off a question about whether he was secretly meeting active military officers, just as Mrs Arroyo did when she was his vice-president.
Public administration specialist Aprodicio Laquian, who briefly served as Mr Estrada's chief of staff, wrote in his book, The Erap Tragedy: Tales from the Snake Pit, that Mr Estrada was excellent in running for president but not in running the presidency.
Mr Estrada seemed aware of this shortcoming because he said a full presidential term was never on his mind. 'I don't believe in any man staying in power too long ... including me.'