A bad idea

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It seemed like a good idea at the time, ousting Joseph Estrada from office. Almost from day one, the Church, civil society and militant groups had weighed the Estrada administration and found it wanting–outstandingly, it seemed, in the moral and competency departments.

A womanizer who did not conceal his numerous liaisons, former movie actor Estrada talked out of the corner of his mouth in the monosyllables of the neighborhood toughie, jeepney driver, and real-life hoods he played in the dozens of movies for which he was known during the better years of Philippine cinema.

He was a college drop-out who favored Filipino and disdained the use of English, in which he claimed he was not proficient, and professed a down-to-earth approach to governance understandable to the “masa.”

It can be a nebulous concept, but when politicians, political analysts and sociologists talk about the “masa,” they usually mean the masses of the poor and the disadvantaged. The Philippine Left, whether armed or unarmed, sees the “masa” if awakened as the makers of history. Filipino politicians see them primarily as the determinants of the outcome of elections.

Despite dagdag bawas (vote-shaving and padding), which takes the outcome of elections out of masa hands and into those of the political elite, this view of masa power nevertheless survives. The myth is that the masa can be bribed, coerced, manipulated in an electoral system known for its fatal flaws, but in the end the masa decide, and it is the masa Estrada claimed and still claims for his exclusive constituency. In 1998 over ten million voters–mostly the masa, who else?–gave Estrada their vote.

That was then, and none of it sat well with the middle class, which fancies itself as sophisticated, English-speaking, and above all moral if only in the public sphere where they make a point of going to Church and proclaiming their loyalty to Christian family values.

The middle class attitude towards Estrada–he was uncouth, stupid, and had the morals of a tomcat–was most prominently evident in the jokes it told about him, all of them focused on his escapades with actresses and airline stewardesses, as well as his supposedly limited intellectual capacities.

But Estrada’s assuming the Presidency was especially galling to the Catholic Church. The late Jaime Cardinal Sin, thought, even before Estrada’s resounding mandate in 1998, that an Estrada victory would be “disastrous.” Which it would be, and was, most especially to Church influence in government.

The military could for a time live with Estrada. If he seemed less focused on governance than on his midnight sessions with his cronies, he was even more indifferent to those various means that kept the generals in mansions and fleets of luxury cars, while rewarding those closest to him with choice appointments.

As he proved in 2000 when he authorized an attack on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the middle of ongoing peace talks, Estrada’s macho instincts could also be depended on to dispense with the usual complex analyses of, say, the “Mindanao problem” by favoring the direct military approach, and showing up in fatigues at the MILF’s Camp Abubakar and drinking beer with the troops.

As for that leading power broker in the Philippines, the 800-pound gorilla known as the United States, it wasn’t exactly enthusiastic over Estrada. Estrada while senator had not only voted against a new treaty with the US that would have renewed the US lease on its military bases in Clark and Subic. He also campaigned against it to the extent of even making a movie chronicling the social ills the bases had spawned in the communities that surrounded them.

Estrada did try to make amends for that indiscretion by sending his future defense secretary off to Washington in 1997 to assure the Great White Father of his allegiance, but that didn’t wash, if only because the influence of certain academic leftists on Estrada was also fairly well known and a matter of distress in certain embassy circles.

Enter Chavit Singson, once one of Estrada’s closet chums. Singson blew the whistle on Estrada’s alleged jueteng kickbacks, even as the media released one expose after another on Estrada’s alleged hidden wealth, bank accounts, and false Statements of Assets and Liabilities.

Despite the efforts of his House allies, an impeachment complaint against Estrada sailed through that Chamber and found its way in the Senate for trial. A broad alliance of Church, civil society, militant groups, anti-Estrada politicians, with the support of the military, eventually removed Estrada from office, with the Supreme Court declaring his ouster legal because he had–duhhh–“constructively resigned.”

The unwonted ease with which Estrada was impeached, tried and eventually ousted–plus the haste with which the Supreme Court legalized his removal–should have forewarned us all that a conspiracy of various elite, Church military and foreign interests had come together to remove a president who had after all been lawfully elected, mostly by the poor.

But Estrada’s numerous failings had not only made it seem like a good idea at the time. It had also seemed like a step forward in the country’s political evolution. There were doubts about Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s principles–or lack of them–despite the sentiments of the moment. But wasn’t she educated where Estrada wasn’t, as well as more articulate?

No one except some of the conspirators, and not even those groups that had demanded that everyone from President down resign, seems to have anticipated that Arroyo would turn out to be worse than Estrada in terms of the immense corruption that has infested the entire bureaucracy and poisoned both the private and public spheres, the human rights violations that now rival the worst of the Marcos years, the official lawlessness and violence, and the sustained assault on the electoral system that has made a mockery of democratic choice.

All this explains why, six years after Estrada was ousted from office, practically every offense that he committed pales in comparison to the crimes the Arroyo regime has committed and is still committing. If Estrada was the disease and Arroyo the cure, the cure has proven worse than the disease.

But that’s to assume that Arroyo was indeed the cure. Apparently she wasn’t.

(BusinessWorld)

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