Not only the successful operation on his knee has reenergized and emboldened former President Joseph Estrada. There is also the death of Fernando Poe Jr. last December, which became an occasion to demonstrate Poe’s continuing popularity and to make the government quake in its jackboots; the rapid decline of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s approval ratings; and, somewhat ironically, the primary lesson of EDSA 2, which in 2001 drove Estrada out of Malacanang.
Estrada had previously languished in Tanay in melancholy acceptance of his fortunes as a detention prisoner on trial for the capital offense of plunder after the supposed defeat of his compadre Fernando Poe Jr. in the presidential elections.
Although Poe had said differently on several occasions, a Poe presidency could have been Estrada’s ticket to freedom, and the restoration of the lifestyle to which he was accustomed.
While being detained in your own vacation house has its bright side, like being allowed travel to Hongkong for an operation that could have been done at the Philippine General Hospital, in Estrada’s world of indulgence and luxury, that doesn’t beat having the capacity to choose which house and in whose company he will spend the night in, playing mah-jongg non-stop, or finishing off $900 bottles of red wine in one sitting. One suspects, in fact, that it’s his appetites that have driven Estrada for much of his life–his appetites that led him to politics, and his appetites that led him to aspire for the Presidency.
But the same appetites did him in as President, preventing him from being focused on the necessary tasks of governance, and from knowing the limits of presidential privilege and power. Having been mayor of San Juan during the Marcos period, perhaps he thought, from Marcos’ example, that a president could do anything, including spending millions of taxpayer money renovating Palace kitchens and refitting the presidential yacht; opening secret bank accounts; engaging in businesses dependent on presidential power for their progress; and taking millions in jueteng kickbacks, while keeping several mistresses, consorting with the shadiest of characters, and generally behaving like the new-rich and parvenu the old elite claims him to be.
At first glance the principal irony about Erap is that he’s less a man of the masses in his habits and appetites than a member of the very same elite that despises him–the select denizens of the gated villages in Manila and of the feudal manors of the provinces who control practically all of the country’s wealth, but who, it can at least be said, manage to keep their vices private most of the time.
But Estrada’s inability to keep the private private helped endear him to the teeming masses, among whose macho men keeping mistresses is a pronounced ambition, and who would, if given the chance, spend obscene amounts on drink, houses and cars if they had the wherewithal. Equally endearing to your man of the street, Estrada despised the learned as much as he despised learning, made fun of the English language whose intricacies escape even most of the middle class, and talked out of the side of his mouth in terms everyone with less than a Grade I education could understand. And then there were his movies, in which he invariably played the underdog who eventually has his day–the fulfillment of the 300-year old masa fantasy of class vengeance and elite come-uppance.
The result was Estrada’s landslide win in 1998, which gave him a mandate of over 10 million votes. Estrada was elected in an election that was generally perceived as fair and relatively fraud free, in contrast to the election of his successor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Mrs. Arroyo’s legitimacy–which the May 10, 2004 elections could have established, remains questionable, given the widespread evidence of fraud and suspicions that she used government funds and resources in her campaign. Though their efforts to prevent her proclamation last June failed, the opposition, or at least the wing of it Estrada once led, could only have derived encouragement from the surveys which show that over 50 percent of Filipinos believe that Poe had been cheated.
Poe filed a protest, but Mrs. Arroyo’s being president de facto took the wind out of the sails of that particular boat. The irony was that Poe’s death refocused attention not only on that pending protest, but even more important, on the legitimacy of the Arroyo presidency.
That event also demonstrated how wide Poe’s support was. The Poe wing of the opposition naturally assumed that the support could be put to a political use, as did Estrada, who, in the aftermath of Poe’s death, said in so many words that he was prepared to re-assume the leadership of the opposition. Estrada of course fits the bill most, if only because he alone among the senior leaders of the opposition has actually won the Presidency of the Republic. The subtext of Estrada’s most recent statements is in fact the assumption that he’s still the President, and Mrs. Arroyo an usurper.
Although it’s not saying, the opposition would probably not oppose another EDSA, though this time in its favor. One can see it between the lines of the statements of its more articulate leaders including Estrada, the prospect of being In instead of Out dancing in their heads like visions of sugar plums at Christmas.
Although political events less simple than what most people perceive them to be, and as Estrada and company interpret them, the twin EDSAs (1986 and 2001) not only ousted two Presidents; they also legitimized any future attempts to do so.
In the perceptions of Estrada, various opposition leaders, the retired and active military officers in their camp, as well as the mostly inarticulate groups that claim allegiance to Poe and, possibly, to Estrada as well, People Power is all about having the numbers.
The interpretation oversimplifies, but does have some truth in it. People Power does require numbers first of all. But it also establishes its legitimacy through the rationality of its demands.
People Power 2 provoked derision in the international press, which questioned the legality of Estrada’s ouster, and called the event a coup. Such publications as the US’ Time magazine pointed out, for example, that whatever else one could say about him, Estrada was elected in 1998, from all appearances legitimately. Second, there were legal avenues to removing a president from office; forcing him to resign via street demonstrations is not one of them.
And yet the process that elected Estrada is a damaged and damaging one. Philippine elections are as dependent on mass ignorance and gullibility as much as they depend on unprincipled alliances and on enough money to launch a small war with. Estrada had the benefit of both, in much the same way that Ferdinand Marcos could count on his political allies and the blind support of the solid North, the mass appeal of Imelda Marcos, and most of all the vast amounts of money he spent in 1965 and 1969.
As it has developed in this country, People Power has become the means to correct the problems created by a fatally flawed electoral and political system. But as a solution its success has been, at the very best, mixed.
People Power did remove a dictatorship in 1986, but failed to bring about the changes that could have put the country on the path to some kind–any kind– of development.
It did remove Estrada, whose term was characterized by, among others, a decline in the value of the peso to the then “all-time low” of P55 to the dollar. But it also put in place a government that, except for the personalities involved, its inefficiency, and its favored vices, cronies and bureaucrats, is only a little less different.
People Power is all about a problem as basic as the persistence of one of the most vicious land tenancy systems on the planet: the integrity of its electoral and political system and its capacity to provide this country the leadership that the citizenry won’t regret putting into power.
In somewhat tentative recognition that it was traditional politics and an uneducated electorate that leads to the election of unworthy leaders, Mrs. Arroyo did pledge to nurture “new politics” when she took her oath as President on January 20, 2004. Not only has nothing been heard of that pledge since; Mrs. Arroyo has since demonstrated that she is as traditional a politician as Estrada and company are.
Meanwhile, the Arroyo administration is focused on amending the Constitution the better to allow its foreign patrons access to Philippine resources, territory and treasure. No reforms to educate the electorate, to curb the spending of obscene amounts of money, to rein in the police and the military during elections, and to put in place an agency less vulnerable to partisanship than the COMELEC are in its six-year agenda. That means that for all the fondest hopes of such people as Fidel V. Ramos, the threat of more EDSAs will remain–and, should certain opposition figures have their way, the next victim could very well be the Arroyo Presidency.