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Trouble in the Philippines--Yet Again

November 08, 2000|W. SCOTT THOMPSON | W. Scott Thompson directs the Southeast Asia Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is co-author with Nicolas Thompson of "The Baobab and the Mango Tree: African and Asian Comparisons" (St. Martin's Press, 2000)

The drama playing out in Manila--the calls for impeachment of President Joseph "Erap" Estrada--is a little bit Watergate, a little bit Teapot Dome, a little bit Profumo, a lot of the "people power" revolution, but at its base, as a wise Filipino put it, simply a Greek tragedy in search of a deus ex machina.

The background is, at the most profound level, the ability of a popular actor to project into the political arena the lower classes' needs and aspirations, as a function of his film image as a Robin Hood, an avenger, a hero. That's Estrada: To world audiences he may look more like Pancho Villa, but to the Philippine working-class people he's dashing and successful, and they're a vast majority.

In 1998, he sailed into Malacanang Palace against the political elite's certainty that he wasn't up to the job. In a country where English as a working language is fast disappearing, it's easy to see why a president who prefers the native Tagalog--indeed, who isn't comfortable or competent in English--would be popular.

In some ways Estrada confounded the experts. He appointed a cabinet of wise men and women, including top educators and clean financial whizzes. He showed great courage in defending the former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim against manifestly trumped-up charges; in criticizing the fascist junta in Myanmar; and in seeking a revision of the Philippine Constitution to permit greater incentives for foreign direct investment.

It wasn't long, alas, before the old Estrada emerged. "The whole place stinks of corruption," Amado Doronila, a leading journalist, commented early in Estrada's term. There were few specifics, but the presence of sleazy businessmen around the palace, getting presidential favor and favors, was not reassuring. The privileges of his many children and his many mistresses were at first amusing but have become annoying and expensive.

Until recently, the Filipino response to the U.S. regarding Estrada's defects was dismissive, saying "accept us," warts and all.

Now it looks like the mood is changing. The peso has slid 33% since he came to office, the insurgencies that his competent predecessor, Fidel V. Ramos, suppressed have reemerged in brazen form, and foreign direct investment is down by a half as unemployment surges.

Estrada is trying to tough it out and call in his debts while the list grows of those willing to cross him, including his popular vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The first hit from a smoking gun came from a most unlikely source: a notorious northern clan leader-politician, Gov. Luis "Chavit" Singson, who became enraged when he was cut out of Estrada's financial games, went public and revealed that he had personally delivered $10 million to the president from lotteries, legal and illegal, in his province.

Corruption has a long heritage in the archipelago. It was there, after all, that a famous politician uttered the immortal words, when most Marshall Plan aid was found to have disappeared into the deep politics of the ruling class, that, after all, "What are we in this for?" And later, Ferdinand E. Marcos got at least $10 billion out of the country. His cronies pocketed perhaps as much again.

There is another aspect of Filipino politics contrasting the heritage of corruption yin and yang, angel and devil. The reformer Ramon Magsaysay succeeded the corrupt Elpidio Quirino, the anti-corruption crusader Diosdado P. Macapagal succeeded the corrupt Carlos P. Garcia, and the angel incarnate Corazon Aquino succeeded the devil Marcos.

As it happens, Estrada has been outflanked by his popular vice president, Arroyo, who has now broken with the president. Hers is a different party in any case, and she takes corruption seriously.

Indeed, she is the most professional national-level politician this writer has met in this country in 30 years of research, and she is also a first-rate economist. That she is waiting in the wings and ready to hit the ground running will make it easier to dump Estrada.

Singson's charges hurt Estrada badly, but they did not ruin him. It will take a hit with more megatonnage to force an early resignation. One suspects it will come by way of Marcos and his heritage.

Though Filipinos have been willing to elect Marcos' widow and children to high position, they have balked at anything that smells of a direct legacy. There is an enormous rise in the national dollar accounts in Manila this past year. Marcos' famous cronies are back in high style and high favor. Many must have brought back huge sums to support their lifestyle, and there is powerful indirect evidence that they are paying Estrada at the gate.

More and more, "decent citizens" are demanding an end to bad governance and downright, obvious corruption. They are expecting Arroyo to have begun her presidential crusade by Christmas, when the economy's downward spiral could make Yuletide bonuses impossible and the layoffs in the fast-growing manufacturing sector may have begun, finally forcing Estrada out. The bookmakers for her early presidency are giving good odds.

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