Estrada and impeachment: hypocrisy and danger


President Estrada should not quit.

That may sound a strange sentiment from one who has criticized the deterioration of standards of public life in the Philippines under his leadership. Many who once gave the former film star the benefit of the doubt have watched with sadness as the business of government has been too frequently distracted by Erap's late night carousing with his cronies, his interventions in support of business figures of varying reputation from Marcos era mega-tycoon Lucio Tan to deal-maker and former presidential adviser .Mark Jimenez, a refugee from justice in the United States.

Estrada, with his business friends from the entertainment industry and days as mayor of the Manila suburb of San Juan, is despised by the Makati business elite which also now finds him a handy scapegoat for the decline of the peso and stockmarket. Meanwhile Erap's claims to represent the poor have been seen, especially on the left, as hypocritical nonsense believed by a declining percentage of a populace long unable to distinguish the real Estrada of mansions and mistresses from the celluloid one of fighter for the poor and oppressed.

However, for all his very obvious faults, Estrada should not quit for one reason and should not (and probably will not) be impeached for another. He should not quit because one of the few things that works in the Philippines is electoral system. It may produce some appalling results but the outward forms of a US style democratic system are accepted and have produced two stable transfers of power since the overthrow of Marcos.

The notion of constitutionality runs strong, so that even Marcos had to wrap his rule in its garb. Mrs Aquino's presidency saw the restoration of legitimacy and free elections. Mr Estrada was elected and should not resign in mid-term unless incapacitated or a smoking gun - like the Nixon tapes - is discovered. Street demonstrations are a legitimate protest against his performance but the suggestion that some sort of People Power replay should be orchestrated to force him out is dangerous.

It may seem impressive that several of the original People Power beneficiaries, ex-Presidents Aquino and Ramos and Cardinal Sin are lined up against Estrada. They have been joined by their left-wing then allies (ignored when they were in office) who helped get the Manila masses on the street in 1986 and ensured the success of the anti-Marcos rebellion. But those who fought for constitutional due process then should respect it now. Likewise Vice-President and next in lineGloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Mrs Arroyo was on a different ticket in 1998 so she is as much an outsider in the Estrada administration as Estrada was as V-P under Ramos. That is not to say that she would not make a better president. She is better educated, has a good grasp of issues, particularly economic ones, and has been a tireless worker in her ministry as well as in the cause of her own advance. But she is also a reminder of the role that dynasties play in Philippine politics, and a reminder that in 1998 she was the running mate of Jose de Venecia one of the longest surviving and accomplished masters of Philippine money politics.

de Venecia.and his company, Landoil, had been beneficiaries of the Marcos crony era but he made a smooth transition to new circumstances. After Ramos was elected he used his wheeling and dealing skills to assemble a majority for the new president in Congress and push through legislation. Despite his "trad pol" (traditional politician reputation) was rewarded with Ramos' endorsement of his presidential bid. Yes, the Philippines deserves better than Estrada.

Ramos was a competent administrator, pushed through sensible laws, increased competition to the discomfort of some commercial oligarchies. He, and his guru and national security adviser General Almonte, wanted to clean up the judiciary, make rich people pay their taxes and ward off the revolution that many believe is necessary if not inevitable. The banking system was kept under sufficiently tight surveillance, partly thanks to the IMF, that Manila caught a relatively mild dose of the Asian contagion.

But the problem that the Philippine political system faces is far, far bigger than the faults of Estrada, or the merits of Ramos. Erap's behaviour may be crude and the allegations against him may be widely believed. But the hypocrisy of many of his accusers is more remarkable than the allegations themselves. The widespread if illegal numbers game jueteng has long been a source of local political funding in the Philippines. Money and favours move back and forth between the centre, with its control of budgets and power, and the provincial bosses who can deliver votes in return for favours.

Estrada is indeed something an exception in Philippine politics, owing his position to film stardom rather to either a strong regional power base or - as in the case of Mrs Arroyo who is the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal - membership of a nationally famous family which is immensely useful in Senate elections, which are run on a national not local basis.

Estrada's chief accuser and one time drinking buddy is Luis "Chavit" Singson the governor of Ilocos Sur province is the self-confessed kingpin in the jueteng business in his region. Singson is indeed typical of the breed of provincial boss combining political business and (allegedly) warlord functions who have long been a feature of a society where tribal and feudal structures exist side by side with the ballot box and free press. He has been alternately governor of or Congressman for Ilocos Sur for most of the past 30 years. He has survived two assassination attempts, which was better luck than the man (a relative) who beat him to a Congressional seat in 1969. He took over the jueteng from his late brother. His niece is mayor of Vigan, the provincial capital.

Singson's turncoat behaviour may be nothing unusual - Ramos himself was long Marcos' chief policeman before turning on him. The public may see the episode as a "falling out among thieves". Singson is aggrieved not about corruption but about his own loss of some gambling business to another presidential pal. Despite the blessing of Cardinal Sin, the links between opposition figures, including Ramos and Arroyo, and Singson now look more like a marriage of political convenience than a moral crusade.

Many may also sense that the Estrada regime is not actually much more corrupt but that he himself is more na´ve. Relying on his film star image, and being surrounded by some none too bright advisers he did not have sufficient experience of political and business horse trading and associates who could be trusted to do the dirty work and keep their mouths shut. Before anyone in the political mainstream in the Philippines makes any moves against Estrada they should contemplate why, despite the efforts of the Philippine Commission on Good Government, and a endless series of legal actions, not one of the significant people who stole public assets during the Marcos era has gone to jail. A fair number of them still sit in the legislature.

Nor was that unique. One of the more insightful studies of banking in the Philippines is entitled "Booty Capitalism", describes how banks have been persistently plundered by politicians and businessmen and the taxpayer left with the bill. Some of those now crying for Estrada's head were among the politician and military beneficiaries of the looting of Clark Airbase when the US pulled out in 1991 Amazing scams involving politicians, business figures and tens of millions of dollars emerged during the Ramos era, and were well documented thanks to the efforts of serious writers such as Sheila Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. But did anything change? Was anyone prosecuted? Were any Senators impeached?

To quote words written Philippine writer Joel Rocamora long before th current furore: "Exposes of corruption form a vital part of our system of political competition. Political "outs" are always looking to expose corruption by the political "ins" but nothing systematic is done about corruption because the "outs" do not wish to poison the well for the time when they manage to become the "ins". Given the realities of political financing in the Philippines, it is unlikely that efforts to impeach Estrada will succeed - unless enough congressmen and senators can be bribed into turning their coats. And that is no way to achieve what the Philippines most needs - a sense of public service on the part of those, politicians and officials, who purport to represent the public.  




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