A leader on ropes in Manila

Incompetence and corruption take center stage in Estrada's impeachment today.

One month ago today, Philippine President Joseph Estrada summoned a meeting of the National Security Council to address the country's mounting crisis.

But descriptions of what happened at the meeting, by some in attendance, are indicative of why, beginning today, Mr. Estrada is the first Asian leader facing an impeachment trial. It's an event that's being watched throughout the region as a major test of a young, US-modeled democracy dealing with allegations of corruption and incompetence.

As a show of Filipino unity, Estrada invited past leaders to the meeting last month, including former President Corazon Aquino, who declined. But former president Fidel Ramos seized the opportunity to chastise Estrada.

Yet Estrada didn't seem to grasp the point. And when asked pointedly, "Where are we going?" referring to the economic and political uncertainty - he smiled, patted his belly, and responded that he had just had his merienda, or afternoon snack.

He seemed "half-dazed," says Jun Enriquez, who served as Mr. Ramos's budget secretary and who also attended the meeting. "They were responses that were way out of line. He did not listen. He did not care at all. He was just going through the motions."

To critics, using a teleprompter in a meeting of 25 or 30 people shows that Estrada, a former film star who made some 300 movies before becoming president, has remained little more than a B movie actor. To supporters, Estrada was simply deflecting criticism with a joke, an example of dasalan at tuksuhan, a Philippine performance art which dictates that the graver the subject matter, the more lighthearted the speaker should be.

Either way, Estrada's most serious role begins today in the Senate where he faces impeachment on charges that include bribery, graft, and betrayal of the public trust, based on accusations of stock market manipulation and receiving an estimated $11 million from illegal gambling operations. Estrada's lawyers deny any wrongdoing. But Estrada's "unpresidential" behavior is also likely to be on trial.

Target of educated classes

Estrada's political foes will bring up the all-night party sessions that former cabinet officials say made it hard for him to keep his appointments - or his eyes open - the next morning. And the Senate prosecution says that it will look at how Estrada financed the 17 new luxury homes, documented by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, built for his four mistresses and family members since his election.

Interviews with numerous past and present Estrada officials paint a portrait of a leader who likes to have his personal pianist accompany cabinet members in merrymaking, but who has little patience for the minutiae of policymaking. "He's not exactly your ideal leader, not to the educated classes," says Edgardo Angara, the secretary of agriculture.

Estrada's supporters acknowledge that he may sometimes act unpresidential and make mistakes, but say that doesn't mean he broke the law - nor, in the end, that the necessary two-thirds of 22 sitting senators will vote for his ouster. But critics say that the man who first served as the mayor of San Juan, then senator and vice president, before making it to the presidential palace in mid-1998, has combined the glitz of the silver screen with the graft of small-town politics.

"What's emerged is that the president is unable to lead, unable to provide direction, and in specific cases, has committed grave criminal offenses," says Heherson Alvarez, a congressman who led the motion to impeach Estrada.

Some say Estrada is still playing the character he played in many films: Asiong Salonga, a Robin Hood-style hero. Fond of that image, Estrada ascended to office on a promise that he would help the little guy. In question today is whether Estrada did just the opposite, allegedly gleaning millions from jueteng - a sort of bingo gambling played mostly by low-income people in rural areas.

The mystery of Estrada's life and trial is thickened by the multiple characteristics attributed to him, often making for conflicting roles.

At times his critics portray Estrada as Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street," capable, says the former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, of taking $40 million for the sale of a public telephone company. At other moments, he is Estrada as Forrest Gump, unable to understand serious economic problems, much less the rackets that his savvier business cronies are working. Officials here tell tales of Estrada as Henry VIII, a man constantly eating and then popping weight-loss pills, conducting most affairs of state at a round table that was always topped with a white tablecloth and round-the-clock feasts that gave way to drinking and playing mah-jongg late into the night. But even those who have demanded his resignation also share images of Estrada as Kris Kringle, giving presents and spreading joy - a man who truly cares for his friends and the underprivileged masses that put him in office.

"Erap is a very charming guy," says Karina Constantino David, Estrada's former secretary of housing, using the president's nickname, which is pare, or buddy, spelled backward. "He makes you feel like you're the center of the universe."

Ms. David resigned last fall, she says, after the president intervened in one too many land acquisition deals on behalf of friends and family. He called to persuade her to make an appointment on behalf of one of his mistresses, pleading, David recalls, "She hasn't asked for anything yet, so how can I say no?"

That was just one in many days during her 15 months in government when David marveled at the president's behavior. At times, it was baffling - like the executive order to lower interest rates without any consultation with the Department of Finance. At times, it was tiring. After lavish cabinet dinners, Estrada told her not to leave when she headed for the door by 10 or 11 p.m.

"He'd say 'No, no, you're part of the second shift,' " recalls David. That meant staying past midnight for bouts of singing Broadway tunes and Filipino ballads, drinking, and gambling. At official events the next day, David says, Estrada came late and would just ad-lib it with good one-liners. "In the Philippines, acting is not the same as in Hollywood," says David. "Movies have no scripts. There's a story line, and you make it up as you go along." Estrada has tried to run the Philippines, she says, as if he were still in show biz.

Many here describe the trial as a morality play. At center stage will be two whistleblowers who made the impeachment trial possible. Luis "Chavit" Singson, governor of Ilocos Sur Province, in October fingered Estrada as the recipient of nearly $11 million in illegal gambling kickbacks, and tobacco taxes. Singson, a former drinking buddy, says he regularly arrived at the presidential palace with a briefcase stuffed with pesos from "gambling lords." Singson says he's willing to go to jail for his deeds, as long as the president goes, too. In an interview in his Manila mansion, he says he will be the trial's star witness "if I'm still alive," referring to a recent assassination attempt.

The second whistleblower is Perfecto Yasay Jr., the former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission who left his post in March. Mr. Yasay says Estrada skimmed money off the sale of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., and benefited from wild swings in the stock prices of another company. Yasay says that Estrada asked for special treatment for his friends, then badgered Yasay to exonerate a crony who was being investigated in a stock-manipulation probe. Estrada "wanted to control the SEC so that his friends could make money," says Yasay.

Also expected to be main characters in the impeachement proceedings are Estrada's 11 children, six wives, and three or four mistresses. The voice of conscience will be performed by the Roman Catholic Church's Cardinal Jaime Sin, and former Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos.

Supporters stay firm

Providing an alternative vision is Mike Velarde, the founder of a charismatic Catholic movement, who claims millions of followers and disenfranchised Filipinos still support Estrada. The poor are willing to forgive the president, he says, and their votes will frighten any senators who vote to impeach Estrada.

Agriculture Secretary Angara says he stayed with Estrada because he thinks he can "move him in the direction of reform." He says the government has made major advances in food security, a matter not lost on the farmers who have more basic concerns than the grand political theater under way in metro Manila.

"As the masses see it, when you're cast into a role, you cannot stick to the rules when you're out there in the jungle doing business," says Angara. "That's why the people like him, because he delivers the promise of taking the poor out of their misery."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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