Return of people power in the Philippines

Activists dog the president for echoing some mistakes of his

Thousands of demonstrators have given President Joseph Estrada a warning that they are keeping a close eye on him and won't tolerate any backsliding on the country's hard-earned democracy.

In the biggest protests against the former movie star since his election 15 months ago, crowds in the Makati business district heard speeches Friday by former President Corazon Aquino and Jaime Cardinal Sin, the same prominent figures who spearheaded the 1986 "people power" revolt that overthrew the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos.

None of the issues that brought passions to a boil last week present a solid case of any wrongdoing by Mr. Estrada. But opponents have been adding to a list of moves that look suspicious. To them, Estrada's proposals to change the Constitution, his relationship with press, and advantages gained by his friends in business and government all smack of cronyism and strong-arm tactics.

For the good of the economy

Estrada says the charter, written while Mrs. Aquino was in office, needs to be amended to open up certain sectors to foreign investors to enable the country to compete in a global economy. He has pledged to limit charter changes to only economic issues, such as allowing foreign ownership of land and utilities, and urged Filipinos to trust him.

But opponents fear that once the bicameral Congress is convened as a constituent assembly to change the charter, there will be no stopping some self-serving politicians from making amendments to extend their fixed terms of office. Like the president, congressmen and senators are banned from seeking reelection after their six-year terms.

Aquino told the rallyists: "The issue is not trust, not trust in the president, but the company he keeps. We do have cause to worry. The characters in power today are the ones the people threw out yesterday." Aquino's successor, Mr. Ramos, was defeated in his 1997 attempt to extend his own term. Cardinal Sin and Aquino led a similar rally against charter change then, forcing Ramos to abandon his bid.

Feuds with the press

The current charged atmosphere was fueled by Estrada's crackdown on the Philippine press, the freest in Asia. Estrada has been the butt of jokes because of his mangled English, unpresidential manner, and his perceived lack of work discipline to lead a nation of 75 million people.

Both sides - the press and Estrada - no longer consider his habits and leadership style to be a laughing matter. He sued the Manila Times newspaper for libel, leading to its closure last month. He began a running feud with the largest circulation paper, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which he accused of often putting him in a bad light by publishing "lies and untruths" about him and his family. Estrada banned the Inquirer from covering palace functions and asked his old chums the movie producers to pull their advertisements from the Inquirer, a move widely interpreted as a bid to censor a free press.

Cronyism - the return of associates of the old Marcos dictatorship to reclaim their wealth, and favors to close friends - have worried the business community.

Estrada was seen to coddle his friend Mark Jimenez - who is wanted by the United States for alleged illegal campaign contributions and tax fraud - by stonewalling a US request for extradition. Businessmen also point out that Estrada has granted lucrative gambling licenses without a bidding process.

Foreign investors have voiced their concern. Even with charter changes to make the Philippines more friendly to foreign investors, the lack of a level playing field may offset Estrada's efforts.

Cardinal Sin has also accused Estrada of facilitating the return of the Marcos family to power and prominence by making secret deals with the family to return only part of their wealth.

Leftists and Communists, who previously supported Estrada, are now against him. Left-wing unions and urban-poor protest groups were prominent in the pro-democracy rally that initially drew in the middle class and business elite.

But despite any mounting evidence against Estrada, he remains immensely popular among some. Across town from Friday's rally, the president and his spiritual adviser, Mike Velarde, drew thousands more to their gathering to celebrate Mr. Velarde's birthday than Aquino and Sin did to their rally. Followers of Velarde's El Shaddai Catholic sect are mainly from lower income groups, Estrada's solid constituency. About a million poor people lined up for free roast calf and suckling pig. By sheer numbers, Estrada's critics are still in the minority. "Nothing can stop me," Estrada declared on the eve of Friday's rally. Over the weekend, he said he'd be willing to meet with Sin, Aquino, and Ramos, but he dug in on his intentions for charter change.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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