November 3, 2000


A Likable President's Unlikable Deeds

By Rene Ciria-Cruz

He was so likable. His mangled English and malapropisms added to his rough charm as the candidate with a common touch. So they elected him president.

Now, tens of thousands are marching to demand his resignation, and his opponents in Congress want him impeached.

Philippines President Joseph Estrada is in deep trouble, and many Filipinos are now sorry they weren't careful what they wished for. Estrada, it turns out, is only likable to a point.

As their massive protests show, Filipinos have had enough not only of the lemon they chose, but also of the entrenched corruption he epitomizes.

Estrada's two-year-old presidency, shadowed by rumors of wrongdoing from the start, recently began to unravel when a disgruntled crony claimed he gave the president $8.6 million in payoffs from an illegal numbers game called "jueteng" and $2.6 million in kickbacks from a tobacco tax.

For Filipinos, "Jueteng-gate" is the last straw. It confirms suspicions that their president is no populist reformer but a Godfather, a vulgar throwback to the likes of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda.

Polls show confidence in the government is at an all-time low, and as the political crisis drags the economy down, the peso's value has plunged, promising higher prices and harder times ahead.

Most Filipino voters hoped that Estrada would make a difference. Highly educated presidents had failed to deliver the nation from corruption and poverty. Perhaps the plain-speaking college dropout would do better.

Although he is himself a member of the elite, he acted like the poor guy from the `hood. Yes, he drank and played hard, but his heart seemed to be with the poor and the underdog—just like in his movies.

Businessmen warned that he wasn't smart enough to lead. Intellectuals decried the pitfalls of his unabashed philistinism. But the desperate poor—as well as many reform-minded voters— dismissed all this as elitist prattle.

With his fresh, irreverent style, Estrada won by a landslide—or, as he joked self-deprecatingly, "by a landscape." His victory was essentially a grass-roots rebellion against the intellectual requirements of democratic rule.

But controversy and scandal dogged President Estrada from day one. He tried to honor the late dictator Marcos as a national hero. He was accused of insider trading in stocks. He hired expert advisers and then ignored them, favoring instead a "midnight cabinet" of rich drinking buddies, whose whispered advice shaped policy decisions.

He flaunted his many families—he has at least 11 children by six—despite questions about how his president's salary can support their mansions and opulent lifestyles.

I met Estrada before he became president. A full-body bloat had already taken over his matinee-idol good looks. But he was charming, and generous with his attention.

His limited political vision was striking. Beyond assurances that he cared for the poor, he offered only simple-minded answers to complex problems—stop criminals "with only the language they understand—force"; set up more charity programs; co-opt graft if you can't beat it.

As if to presage his current scandal, he proudly recalled how, as mayor of a small city, he forced a local numbers syndicate to stop bribing individual cops and to pay instead into a "new fund"—which used the money for scholarships and funeral benefits for the policemen's families.

On a visit to the Philippines last May, I reported on some of the damage wrought by Estrada's simplistic world view. He scrapped his predecessor's policy of negotiating with Muslim rebels and—just like in his movies—tried to end the rebellion in one big shootout, oblivious of the knotty religious and ancestral rights issues that have fueled the separatism for hundreds of years.

Estrada's all-out war tore through one of the country's bread baskets, killed hundreds, uprooted hundreds of thousands, and threatened to engulf wider areas. This ignorant policy fed Christian chauvinism, and his popularity soared briefly.

Then things went downhill—some rulers get into trouble by boldly nationalizing industries; Estrada, with his limited vision, invited doom by trying to nationalize the numbers game.

As in many poor, developing countries, where favors coursing though infinite webs of personal connections are important tools for survival, the culture of corruption permeates daily life in the Philippines.

But it is a culture the Filipinos no longer necessarily want to live with. Corruption is one big obstacle to national economic progress and real personal advancement. The thousands who emigrate to other countries are seeking not only jobs, but also the opportunity to work in a system with reasonable rules of fair play.

In the Philippines, therefore, any serious campaign against corruption would constitute a revolutionary act. The mounting protests against Estrada should be seen in this light. They are not just aimed at a sitting president. These protests signify a common hunger for a higher standard of governance. They are also a profound self-criticism, a declaration that Filipinos are no longer willing to live in the old way.

Rene Ciria-Cruz is also the longtime editor of Filipinas Magazine in San Francisco.

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