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Dr Ron May
Following the decision by the Philippine House of Assembly in November to instigate impeachment proceedings against President Estrada, the trial of the president by the Senate commenced in early December. Estrada is charged with four counts: bribery, graft and corrupt practices, betrayal of public trust, and culpable violation of the constitution. He denies all allegations - declaring 'I might have committed little mistakes, but I am doing my best' - and continues to ignore calls for his resignation.
In some circles, the impeachment trial is being hailed as 'People Power II'. The situation in late 2000, however, is very different from that in early 1986. The 'People Power Revolution' in 1986 was a spontaneous popular uprising, with critical support from the church and elements within the military, to overthrow an unpopular dictator and install an esteemed opposition figure whom almost everybody believed had won an election. In 2000 a broad spectrum of Philippine society is calling on President Estrada to resign - including the Left, the Catholic Church and some other church groups, some business and professional groups, a group of retired senior military personnel, and a number of prominent individuals, including former presidents Aquino and Ramos - and mass rallies to support these calls havebeen well attended. But on 6 December an opinion poll in Manila claimed that 41 per cent of people in Manila still trusted President Estrada and only 29 per cent wanted him to quit. Moreover, other polls have suggested that support for key opponents of the president - former presidents Aquino and Ramos and Cardinal Sin - has actually declined in recent weeks.
With regard to a prospective successor, the situation in 2000 also differs from that in 1986. Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is not only the constitutional replacement should Estrada go, but is a talented politician and clearly the best candidate on the block. But she does not have the charisma accorded to Cory Aquino in 1986, and she has herself been tainted by allegations of involvement in corruption.
In any case, it is at this stage far from clear that the Senate will yield the necessary two-thirds vote of its twenty-two present members. The president himself is confident: 'I'm the first president to be impeached, but I'll be the first to be acquitted'.
Rumours have circulated of possible military coups both in support of Estrada and against him. The conservative Armed Forces National Reservists Association and United Veterans Association have described themselves as 'deeply concerned and hurt' by the attacks on President Estrada and have accused 'demagogues' of attempting to create the circumstances which 'unconstitutionally toppled President Marcos from power'. But both military and police have vowed to uphold the constitution. Former Armed Forces coup leader, now senator, Gregorio Honasan has been amongst those asking that people be responsible in words and action, ironically adding 'There is a constitutional process that we have to follow'.
This emphasis on 'constitutional process' has been an important aspect of the debate. Respected columnist Rigoberto Tiglao has suggested that President Estrada's impeachment trial 'could be more important than the 1986 Edsa revolt'. The events of 1986, he argues, unfolded partly by chance; the current process, on the other hand, 'isn't determined by chance, but by a particular set of rules and institutions we call the impeachment trial. At the core of all those rules and institutions is the democratic ideal: political power isn't determined by guns, by elites, or by mobs, but a process that reflects the people's will'. Similarly, newly-elected Senate president Aquilino Pimentel has said: ‘As senators, we will do everything possible within our command to demonstrate that our democracy works and that there is no room in this country for the adoption of extra-legal measures'. Even President Estrada agrees with that, expressing the hope that the trial will show the world that the Philippines 'plays by the rules'.
WATCHPOINT: More is on trial in the Philippines than the rule of Estrada.
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