The enigma of the Philippines

After six months in office, the 'people's president' fails tolive up to his critics' fears.

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Before Joseph Estrada become president last June, many critics said the former film star could turn the Philip-pines into the laughingstock of the world. Not so. Instead, this nation's third leader since the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 remains an enduring enigma, with a high popularity rating (61 percent). Many people say the magic is in his old movie image - roles of a Robin Hood tough guy with a heart of gold. The poor were the majority of voters who gave him the highest electoral vote in Philippine history. "The masa [poor] love him," says Rowena Salvacion, a reporter who covers him regularly. "He is very simple. His thinking is very simple. He says what he wants." During the campaign he promised jobs, houses, and food. That hope - rather than results - sustains his image. This self-confessed womanizer eschews speeches and long meetings. His style is casual, so casual that Mr. Estrada is still referred to in headlines by his nickname Erap, a backwards spelling of pare, or "buddy" in Filipino. On his diplomats' nerves Estrada claims some modest achievements in his first half year, among them saving the national flag carrier, Philippines Airlines, from closing down. Still, his presidency so far is marked by stumbles, truncated statements, malapropisms, and uncalibrated utterings that make the Philippine elite cringe. But his support for human rights and a fair trial for sacked Malaysia finance minister Anwar Ibrahim has won him some points in the region for shooting from the hip. No other Southeast Asian leader has publicly supported the beleaguered official. So when he refused to give clemency to convicted child rapist Leo Echegaray (whose execution would have been the country's first in 23 years and was stayed by the Supreme Court), Estrada rationalized: "Even my mother does not want to reprieve Echegaray, so why should I?" (Estrada is a dutiful son, who keeps Sundays free for his mother.) He almost always says in interviews he was the black sheep of the family of nine children, the only one who never graduated from college. His legend as a movie star was as large as his private life. He doesn't hide the fact that he has 10 children with four different women. He met his wife, Loi, a child psychiatrist, while mopping floors in a hospital. Estrada's pompadour hairstyle, drooping moustache, and sleepy eyes do not project the image of a leader with energy or brilliance, but of a street-smart guy who climbed from actor, mayor, and senator to the presidency. The Filipino elite refused to accept him. His administration is "blatantly anti-intellectual and ... propagates ignorance as a virtue of government," writes columnist Amando Doronila. Some substance to the show Not true, protest Estrada's palace aides. "The president is up very early, he works very hard on substantive matters," says acting press secretary Enrique Gutierrez. Ramon Cardenas, acting executive secretary, says Estrada calls the Cabinet ministers all the time, who brief him on projects and initiatives. Estrada easily accepts the criticism. "From Day 1, people had been waiting for me to commit some mistakes," he says. But he's hopeful he will win over the media eventually. "It is just like in the movies, when the lead actor always allows himself to be clobbered in the beginning but emerges the winner in the end." Filipino voters thus far don't seem to demand much from him. As long as he says he is doing something, he is seen to be doing it.

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