Film Hero to Run Philippines As a 'Buddy' of the Masses

Joseph Estrada has presidency in bag as final vote count starts. Urban elite are upset.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

An unschooled, unpolished man of the masses is on the verge of serving as the Philippines' next president.

While Congress's official count of the May 11 vote just began May 26, unofficial results proclaim Joseph Estrada the top vote getter in the history of free Philippines elections.

Mr. Estrada's emergence has unnerved the Filipino urban elite, who have traditionally held political power in this country.

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While they struggle to explain why Filipinos are backing a self-confessed but reformed philanderer and drinker, Mr. Estrada's strategist, Ronald Zamora, sees no puzzle to this phenomenon.

"The message [of this victory] is, ordinary people are getting fed up with all the elites who don't speak their language, who can't understand what they have to say," says Mr. Zamora, whom Estrada has named as his executive secretary.

To identify with the masses, Estrada chose to use his nickname Erap, or "buddy" spelled backward in Filipino.

Simply, his victory "is the revenge of the masses," says Dr. Joel Rocamora, head of the left-leaning Institute for Popular Democracy, a grass-roots organization tapped by Estrada early in his campaign.

"They are tired of being led by smart people," he adds.

Lest the "smart people" think he is unfit to lead, Estrada reminds critics that he has been in politics for 29 years.

Many of those years were spent as a mayor of the small town of San Juan in Metro Manila, and as a senator, before he was elected in 1992 to serve as Fidel Ramos's vice president.

Indeed Estrada, a college dropout whose mangled English makes him a laughingstock of the elite, has always cast himself in the role of the hero who helped the poor in real life, as he did in his movies.

His acting style appears to have propelled him to the Philippine presidency. "Basically, his movie roles have been the guy who speaks for the ordinary people, the guy who understands their concerns. The guy who's prepared to fight for them," Zamora explains.

In the early flush of victory, Estrada hasn't strayed from the focus of his campaign to serve the poor.

Estrada continues to stress that his first priority is food security and that no one should go hungry in the Philippines.

Reports on dozens of tribal people dying from drought-related diseases and hunger were overshadowed by the election campaign.

The World Bank estimates 40 percent of Filipinos live below the poverty line.

Estrada notes that the majority of these people are the rural poor who depend on agriculture. His government plans to emphasize agricultural improvements and make food affordable to everyone.

In an assuring signal to the business community that doubts his grasp on economic issues, Estrada says he will continue President Ramos's economic liberalization program.

He recently presented a plan for his first 100 days in office to a group of businessmen.

It would appear that Estrada, while agreeing there can be no backtracking from the free-market system, wants to humanize it.

"We take our cue from Joseph Estrada himself, who stressed that the cold efficiency of the market should be given a heart and soul," says Edicio dela Torre, who left the priesthood to join the communist underground and now ranks as president-elect Estrada's adviser.

Advisers like Mr. dela Torre on the left and Zamora on the right portend potential ideological tensions in the next government.

Several ex-communists who mapped out Estrada's pro-poor and pro-people agenda will be working alongside advisers who were cronies of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

Then there is a third group of businessmen and bankers who have been given the tasks of calming the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and foreign lenders who are concerned Estrada's populist policies may defeat economic reforms put in place by Mr. Ramos.

Estrada's business allies, who funded his campaign, may oppose tax reforms that Ramos promised to deliver to the IMF but failed to pass in Congress.

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