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Saturday, September 9, 2000

Filipinos brace
for four more
years of ‘Erap’

Public perceives
his government as
corrupt and inept

By Belinda A. Aquino
Special to the Star-Bulletin

AFTER only two years into his six-year term, Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who will visit Hawaii next week, has lost ground. In his state-of-the-nation address in July, he promised a "new beginning," which tacitly admitted his failures during the past two years.

Estrada has come under increasing criticism on a number of issues, which has cast a pall on his presidency. The international press, including Time, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, as well as the Philippine media, have taken turns bashing Estrada for the return of Marcos-style cronyism.

Also being criticized: the raging Mindanao war, his militarist approach to the Muslim issue, the falling peso, scandals involving presidential cronies, rising prices of oil and commodities, and a general perception of corruption and ineptitude in his administration.

Joseph Estrada

The harshest criticism has come from Business World, one of Manila's most respected newspapers, which has called Estrada "a president without shame." According to the daily's June 21 issue: "The worst thing to ever happen to the Philippines is President Joseph 'Erap' Ejercito Estrada. The country today is at its lowest ebb, thanks to the cronyism, corruption and sheer ineptitude of the incumbent administration."

While I was visiting the Philippines this past summer, it was not unusual to hear people groaning and moaning about "four more years of Erap." The coup, resignation or impeachment rumors were still there. For the sake of argument, let's consider their possibilities:

Bullet Coup. The Philippine military, unlike some of its counterparts in the Third World, has neither a tradition nor the inclination to seize power in times of crisis. Such a move, if it were to happen, would not have the support of the Filipino people.

Besides, there is no organized group in the military that has emerged, similar to the Reform the Armed Forces Movement coup plotters during the Marcos regime, which can provide an alternative to Estrada.

Furthermore, there is a constitutional set-up in place so that, if anything should happen to the president, there is a sitting vice president ready to assume power in an orderly political transition process.

IN the Marcos martial law regime, by contrast, there was no designated vice president or successor. This led to all kinds of wild succession scenarios in the event of the death of Marcos -- Imelda, General Ver, a combination of the two, a military junta and so on.

Bullet Impeachment. This is a possibility but highly improbable since there are not enough members of Congress who would initiate such action. Congressional members are not exactly saints themselves, and it would not be far-fetched to assume that they could be bought by the party in power, as has happened in the past.

And, of course, since an election is coming up in 2001, Estrada will attempt to support as many candidates for Congress as he can in order to forestall an impeachment movement.

Therefore, given all the advantages that the political system accords an incumbent president, Estrada can recoup lost ground. Time may be in his favor if he knows how to use it well.

Although he has had lengthy experience as an elected official, even longer than his movie career, Estrada seems unable to grow in his new role as president. Unlike the silver screen where he was a matinee idol, politics is more than a cops-and-robbers game or a "good guy/bad guy" kind of confrontation.

His predecessors, Presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, had no elected office before they were cast into perilous presidential waters. By contrast, Estrada -- with his political experience as mayor of San Juan for 17 years, senator for six and vice president for another six -- has no excuse for bungling his presidency.

He should have more political savvy than he has shown so far.

Belinda A. Aquino is a professor of political science
and Asian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
She is not related to former President Corazon Aquino.

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