Estrada's strength under siege

Philippines Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo says President Estrada's resignation is the solution.

As Filipinos once again are looking to a potential female head of state to deliver them from a political crisis, it's hard to ignore the echoes of the people-power revolt that toppled the government here 14 years ago.

Daily street rallies marshalled by the middle class and the business community are demanding the resignation of President Joseph Estrada. Former President Corazon Aquino and prominent religious leader Cardinal Jaime Sin, who together rallied Filipinos in 1986, also are calling for Mr. Estrada to quit.

After a provincial governor accused Estrada of taking $11.5 million in bribes and kickbacks, charges which he denies, opposition congressmen last week began impeachment proceedings against the president.

But the differences between today and 1986 are as numerous as the similarities, and Estrada's fall is by no means assured.

Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was elected on a separate opposition ticket in 1998, is slowly distancing herself from Estrada. But until Wednesday, she maintained that she would not join the calls for Estrada's departure because she is next in line to succeed him. Yesterday, Ms. Arroyo said that his resignation, "sad to say," would be a solution to the crisis. The diminutive Arroyo is the daughter of a former president, but also an economist who cut her teeth in electoral politics.

Ms. Aquino, on the other hand, inherited the political legacy of her assassinated husband, a popular politician, and made the transition from housewife to president on the wave of the people-power revolt.

And while the country has endured 28 months of his scandal-racked administration, Estrada's strength has always been support from the poorer classes, who still see him even today as a virtual reincarnation of his movie roles as their defender. Since he swept to power in 1998 with the largest margin ever won by a candidate, scandals have erupted involving cronies, mistresses, illegitimate children, and shady business deals. Manila's freewheeling press has complained about his lack of governance, inept leadership, and the questionable company he keeps.

One former friend, with his own shaky reputation, told spellbound congressional committees - testimony carried live on radio and television earlier this month - that he delivered to Estrada bribes from criminal gambling syndicates and kickbacks in national tobacco taxes. Luis "Chavit" Singson, governor of Ilocos Sur province, produced a detailed ledger of the payoffs to back up his claim and says he came forward after fearing an attempt on his life by another gambling lord who was favored by Estrada to take over legal gaming operations.

Estrada vows to dig in and fight. "I will never, never resign because I have a sworn duty to the Filipino masses. That is where [my critics] are mistaken in calling for my resignation."

Estrada's supporters may even believe some of the allegations, but many express hope that he won't resign because that could create more instability. In a squatter area next to the gleaming corporate center of Makati City in the capital, Maria Senares sells vegetables in a makeshift store. "I don't want the president to resign because things will worsen," she says. Ms. Senares earns 360 pesos a day ($7.35), which puts her among those living below the poverty line. Senares adds that she does think some of the corruption charges against Estrada are true, "but most are trumped up by the politicians."

Her neighbor Alfredo Bati, an electrician, echoes the same sentiments. "I believe in some of the allegations," he says. "But I believe he gives [the money] to the poor," a reference to the Robin Hood-type characters Estrada has played in his former movie career. "Things will become worse if he resigns," Mr. Bati adds.

The impeachment process is viewed as lengthy, with little chance of succeeding, since the ruling coalition controls both houses of Congress. The military and security forces, whose support was integral to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, have not made moves against Estrada.

What may drive the crisis is damage to the economy. Business groups have asked for a speedy resolution. Guillermo Luz, executive director of the influential Makati Business Club, said, "The longer we prolong this controversy ..., the more the economy will suffer." The country is still generating positive growth, but over the past two years, foreign investments have been plunging. The peso has lost more than 20 percent this year, reaching another new low yesterday, and the stock market, already comatose since a year ago when Estrada sparked the first crisis of confidence by interfering in an investigation into a friend's alleged price fixing at the bourse, has been declared dead by stockbrokers. Many foreign brokers have pulled out of the Philippines.

Estrada himself sought a way out of the crisis by suggesting last weekend that he was in favor of calling a snap election to resolve once and for all the electorate's confidence in him. Legal experts say this is not provided for in the Constitution, and would entail huge expenses which the budget, already in deficit, could not support.

Political analyst Alex Magno describes Estrada as "damaged goods" and asks the question uppermost in many Filipinos' minds: "Estrada may survive [impeachment], but can the economy survive Estrada?"

Central Bank governor Rafael Buenaventura broadly hinted it might not. At a meeting with foreign journalists, he said the crisis is not an economic issue but a political one "that requires a political solution." He pointed out that the economy can take the blows only up to the next 60 to 90 days at current interest rate levels. Other economists are predicting that once the peso collapses, the president's economic managers might be forced to abandon him. That would bring down Estrada faster.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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