Former Actor Leads in Race For President of Philippines

Vice president is loved by the masses, but unpopular with the Roman Catholic Church and business.

So who is afraid of Joseph Estrada, the aging former movie actor and unconventional vice president who might just become the next president of the Philippines?

The answer: Just about every group that traditionally decides who should be the future leader: the business sector, the influential Roman Catholic Church, and the incumbent administration of President Fidel Ramos.

All polling surveys this year have shown Mr. Estrada to be consistently on top, his popularity unmatched among the half-dozen aspirants in the May 1998 presidential election.

The former film star, who reveled in tough guy roles, seems to have only his celebrity as a vote-getter. He is poorly educated and has been often criticized as lacking in morals. The college dropout, who was born in Manila's slum area of Tondo, Estrada, popularly known as "Erap," is a butt of jokes for his gaffes, his mangled English, and his less than expert grasp of economic issues.

But Estrada seems to have strong support among lower-class Filipinos, or the massa.

Analysts see Estrada's rising popularity as a backlash against the Philippines' recent economic liberalization. A free-market economy has created insecurity among poorer Filipinos, notes political scientist Alex Magno. "The larger trend that is particularly disturbing is that government is downsizing," says Mr. Magno. "People feel that the old patrimonial idea of the government taking care of the people is being replaced by the survival of the fittest. There is an undercurrent of anxiety among the poor."

"Erap has the trust of the people," Mr. Magno emphasizes, in explaining Estrada's popularity. "People are looking for the personal touch. Therefore, Erap inspires."

Sociologist Randolf David, who conducts a television talk show on current social issues, says that Estrada has bonded well with the masses because "He speaks their idioms, he uses metaphors they can understand."

Like former US President Ronald Reagan, also an actor, "Erap is a great communicator, although Reagan was smoother. But they were similar in impact," Mr. David says. He adds, "Erap is sincere when he speaks to the people."

Estrada's public image has been built from his movie career, where he always played the hero who helped the poor and the weak. Many analysts say the public doesn't distinguish between the real and "reel" Estrada.

His six Philippine Best Actor awards, and the fact that he received more votes as a vice-presidential candidate than Ramos did for president in the 1992 election, testify to his appeal.

His detractors say that Estrada did a credible job as mayor of the affluent San Juan municipality in metro Manila for 17 years. But in his one elected term as a senator, Estrada's only known action was to introduce a bill to propagate water buffaloes.

"I will emigrate if Erap wins," despairs the eminent Filipino novelist Frankie Sionil Jose, whose views reflect those of the educated class in Manila. "The Philippines will be the laughingstock of the world," he says.

The company that Estrada keeps also worries critics. Although he swears he has given up late nights and drinking alcohol, Estrada does not report to his office before noon, aides admit.

A reputation as a womanizer also seems to dog him, although he has moved to limit the political damage. In a recent newspaper interview, Estrada openly confessed that he had had several mistresses and children from various relationships. The confession was viewed as a strategic move to blunt an expected onslaught by opponents, particularly the Catholic Church, against his candidacy.

In the interview, he said his indiscretions should not be held against him. "My sins are between me and God. I have not sinned as a public servant," he stressed. "I have never been linked to any graft or corruption."

The interview appears to be in response to a circular issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the church's governing council, advising Filipinos not to vote for any candidate who has not been honest "in both their private and public lives," in an obvious reference to Estrada.

THE "Erap factor" had been advanced by lieutenants of Mr. Ramos as the reason behind the aborted moves to amend the Constitution to extend the president's single six-year term. In the face of stiff opposition, Ramos has since declared he won't seek a second term.

But Ramos's misstep over the charter change and the fallout from the economic turmoil sweeping the Philippines and other Asian countries have diminished his clout in endorsing a successor from his ruling Lakas Party. An independent survey in September showed Ramos's approval rating has fallen sharply from 31 percent to 5 percent.

Since no other presidential candidate has appeared who rivals Estrada in popularity, analysts predict that Ramos, the church, and the business sector will intensify their "demonizing" of Estrada.

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