Joseph Estrada: The Philippine politician who can't stop apologising

Joseph Estrada pledges to say sorry over 2010 Manila bus tragedy; his Filipino detractors point to his 'millions, mansions and mistresses'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 6:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 10:31am

Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, 76, wants to say sorry to Hong Kong.

Now that's an act he had a lot of practice in - apologising. A self-acclaimed womaniser and philanderer, "Erap", as Estrada is popularly known, in the past had to repeatedly beg forgiveness from his wife, Luisa. One time he did it in style, with flowers and accompanied by musicians playing violin.

A black sheep of his family, Estrada kept saying sorry to his mother Maria for always getting into trouble when he was young. Expelled from middle school for fighting and never completing college, he was a constant worry for her.

His success as a movie star and politician never cut any ice with her. One story attributed to her goes that a few years before she died, when somebody told her that she should be proud of her son becoming the president of the Philippines, she is reported to have replied: "But my other son is a doctor."

But even as he kept apologising to his wife, the number of scandals continued to grow around him as he became a popular movie star. Rumours link him to numerous mistresses and nine children, but legally he has only one wife and three children.

During his 75th birthday bash in April last year, Estrada joked: "Don't take it against me if I took the Bible … too seriously when it said 'go and multiply'."

Despite the apologies, Estrada's "only legal wife" - his own description of her - got fed up with his scandals and flew off to Philadelphia in the United States with the children when yet another scandal emerged linking Estrada to his leading ladies in the film world. But after 18 years of living apart, Estrada vigorously wooed her back, saying he was very sorry, that he was a changed man and that he would have no more affairs. He was running for senator in the upper legislative chamber at that time, in 1987, and a broken marriage would have been a death knell to anyone with a political ambition.

In a book published by the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, the group summed up the keynotes in Estrada's life as "millions, mansions and mistresses".

But such allegations only complemented his roguish charm and common touch, making him a hero to many, not unlike some of those action heroes he played on the screen. That propelled him into a political career that took him to the highest office of the land in 1998.

He didn't last long. In 2001, not even midway through his presidency, he was tossed out in a bloodless "people power" uprising stoked by public outrage over his personal excesses and graft in his administration.

After a trial that lasted six years, which he spent under house arrest, he was convicted of plunder and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007. But he was immediately pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Ironically, Arroyo herself is now under house arrest, pending a trial for poll fraud.

Like a phoenix, Estrada rose again, to run for the presidency in 2010 and finished second. Earlier this year, he became the mayor of Manila [one of the cities in Metro Manila which serves as the nation's capital], wresting the position from a former ally turned bitter foe, Alfredo Lim, who was the mayor during the 2010 bus massacre in Manila.

It was Lim's order to arrest the bus hostage taker's brother which triggered the tragic chain of events on the night of August 23.

After Estrada replaced Lim as mayor of Manila, one of his first pronouncements was that he would set things right with the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong victims and their relatives. He told the Sunday Morning Post in an exclusive interview: "Maybe I'll apologise [to Hong Kong] on behalf of our government [because] there was a mishandling of the crisis."

Many Filipinos don't buy Estrada's explanation. They see the apology as epal - slang for a self-promoting political publicity stunt. There have been disparaging remarks on social media. One Twitter user noted how "to this day, even after conviction and pardon of Erap for plunder, no apology from him and claims innocence".

One satirical website proclaimed that President Benigno Aquino would issue, on Erap's behalf, "a sincere apology over the acts of plunder that the country suffered in the hands of former president and now Manila mayor Joseph Estrada".

Manila is in a sorry state - urban blight is widespread, the street lights barely work and traffic is a mess. Yet the mayor is heading off to Hong Kong.

None of these criticisms will faze Estrada, who remains unrepentant over his failed presidency. Like many Filipino politicians, a key part of his resilience is his ability to ignore or block any such criticisms. In his view, he was the victim of a conspiracy and innocent of any wrongdoing. Talking of his ill-fated presidency, he told reporters: "I committed no crime" and added that "nothing was proven".

He insisted he was the one wronged, but had forgiven his transgressors because - quoting his now-favourite author, Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi - "The weak cannot forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

When he ran for mayor this year, he said he did not regret the six years he spent in confinement, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. He joked: "We are ex-convicts, we are men of conviction".

Likening Erap to Mandela would be a stretch. A better comparison would probably be to Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's flamboyant ex-prime minister who has been linked to numerous corruption and sex scandals.

Analysts have said one basis of Berlusconi's popularity was the fact that many Italians wanted to be like him, and this was true of Erap as well. Most Filipinos dreamt of being rich and loved by many women, they said.

The difference is that Estrada revels in being the butt of such barbs. In 1998, when running for the presidency, he turned attacks over his low English-language skills into a vote winner by portraying his attackers as a rich elite looking down on the unlettered poor.

But his strategy backfired when his administration was beleaguered by scandals and investigations showed Estrada receiving profits from a nationwide illegal gambling ring. Filipinos gleefully exchanged thousands of Erap jokes. One of them: "Why won't Erap resign? Because that would be the intelligent thing to do."

His image of being one of the poor also took a hit from revelations that he regularly drank expensive wines that cost more than 10,000 pesos (HK$1,800) a bottle, and had spent 10 million pesos remodelling the presidential kitchen.

He provided ammunition to his detractors who were sceptical of his abilities. For example, during New Year celebrations, in a televised bash where everyone around him was counting down to the new millennium, Erap was counting up.

Nevertheless, fate has been kind to Estrada. When he became president he declared: "This will be the greatest performance of my life." When that ended in a trial and conviction, people wrote him off, but he still managed to bounce back - conveniently ignoring a promise he had made to Arroyo that, in exchange for the pardon, he would never run for office again.

His self-deprecating humour, roguish charm and wealth have put him back in the political spotlight, occupying the politically important post of Manila mayor.

It might not be the greatest performance of his life, but it's an encore, and Hongkongers may be able to see up close how he performs.