Philippines: Seismic Predictions

2000

Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

The Philippines is seen today as a volcano about to erupt. Comparisons are made with the last years of the Marcos regime. Almost daily, "concerned citizens" and "cause-oriented groups" march in the streets calling for president Joseph Estrada to resign. Much of the business establishment blames the fall of the peso and continued stock market decline on lack of investor confidence in Estrada's government. Impeachment proceedings are already underway in the Senate. Government spokesmen compare Estrada to Indonesia's president Abdurrachman Wahid: reactionary forces seek their removal, but, they claim, Wahid and Estrada are pursuing correct developmental strategies. The alternative would be chaos.

But there is an obvious difference between the Wahid and Estrada leadership styles. Whereas Wahid can still point to his personal adherence to Islamic standards of behaviour to enhance his legitimacy, and was acquitted of a corruption charge involving his masseur, Estrada is plagued with accusations of nepotism, corruption and the blatant disregard of Christian morality. What triggered the latest crisis was the revelation last month by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) of the magnitude of Estrada's assets and spending, and his failure to declare them properly – a prerequisite for holding public office. What caught the public eye, in particular, was Estrada's spending on lavish mansions for his mistresses and his children by them.

The PCIJ exposť was followed in mid-October by the shocking revelation by Ilocos Sur governor Luis Singson of his role as Estrada's collector of payouts from illegal jueteng (a popular numbers game) gambling operations in his region. Singson depicted the president of the country as the lord of all jueteng lords, who pocketed hundreds of millions of pesos which explains how he built all those palaces for his mistresses. Cardinal Sin and former president Cory Aquino were quick to endorse these revelations, which were depicted as Christian atonement for Governor Singson’s previous support for the wicked Estrada. On 18 October the main boulevard in Makati saw a mini re-enactment of ‘people power’ with Sin and Aquino leading the call for the president's resignation.

Seen from afar, the Philippine political situation today might, indeed, be seen as a re-enactment of the prelude to Marcos's fall from power. In fact, however, those calling for Estrada's removal belong largely to the educated urban population. After all, how many of the Philippines' 70 million people can afford the text-ready mobile phones or internet-ready computers through which exposes and denunciations of Estrada are circulated? How many actually read English-language newspapers?

Many forget that 1986 "people power" was preceded by the gruesome assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. Marcos was blamed for this, and Aquino became a martyr for the anti-dictatorship cause. Today there is no such martyr figure. Governor Singson cannot shake off the widespread perception that he ‘confessed’ only when the President refused him favours.

Estrada's recent speeches at public gatherings are carefully crafted to project himself as a president for the poor. When he speaks in Tagalog and strays from the script, he can even pull off a comparison with Andres Bonifacio, the plebeian leader of the 1896 revolution, who dared to challenge the political and economic dominance of the Spanish church and the wealthy mestizos. To some extent Estrada can manipulate his claim to be the Bonifacio of the present in order to neutralize the criticisms by Cardinal Sin, Cory Aquino, and other prominent (and wealthy) figures. This is reflected in recent polls which show him still enjoying the support of the poorer classes.

The government is calling for political stability in the face of the war in Mindanao, and the military supports it. The counter-attack on Singson's credibility is beginning to take hold. It is able to present compelling arguments that Estrada is not responsible for the fall of the peso, which is almost in tandem with the decline of other currencies like the Australian dollar, or for the rise in petrol prices. And the class that voted for Estrada is not all that bothered by his extra-marital escapades or his involvement in gambling operations. These are all seen to be part of his leadership style, the subject of gossip and speculation, and can be tolerated as long as he is "their" president.

WATCHPOINT: Scratch beneath the surface and we realize that the political volcano may not erupt as yet.

 

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