Estrada's guilt could shadow Arroyo
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- Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2007 10:33:51 +0800
Sep 14, 2007
Estrada's guilt could shadow Arroyo
By Aries Rufo
MANILA - The conviction on Wednesday of former Philippine president Joseph
Estrada may offer the current administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a
respite from its many political problems, but the court decision against the
former elected leader could cast yet another shadow over her unpopular regime's
The guilty verdict, which sentenced Estrada to life imprisonment on plunder
charges and required that he forfeit US$15.5 million and a mansion, had been
widely expected, including by Estrada's
own legal camp. It comes at a time when Arroyo is still hounded by allegations
that she stole the presidency not once but twice, first in the wake of Estrada's
impeachment and popular-protest-driven downfall, and then under allegations of
massive cheating during her 2004 election campaign against the late actor
Fernando Poe Jr.
Although the Supreme Court eventually ruled that Estrada had in effect abandoned
the presidency at the height of the so-called People Power 2 protests, he
continued to enjoy positive public sentiment and sympathy. Even while the case
wound through the Philippine judiciary, according to polls, Estrada's net
popularity rating remained positive.
Meanwhile, Arroyo's popularity has continued to slide, and she has never fully
recovered from the telephone-wiretap scandal that caught her discussing poll
results with an election official before they were officially announced.
Estrada's still-strong residual support, which runs particularly deep among the
poor masses, was shown in a recent survey of the Social Weather Stations polling
agency, which found his "trust" rating runs at 64% and that almost half of those
surveyed in Metro Manila and neighboring provinces felt that he should be
pardoned if found guilty. In contrast, only 18% indicated they had "much trust"
for Arroyo, while 62% said they had "little trust".
Estrada, a former swashbuckling action-film star who started his political
career as a town mayor, won the 1998 presidential election by a landslide. His
populist style went down well with the country's poor masses, which make up the
bulk of Filipino voters. Two years into his term, however, Estrada was already
beset with corruption allegations.
His reputed drinking buddy, then-provincial governor Luis "Chavit" Singson - a
self-confessed "jueteng lord" (an illegal numbers game), exposed that he had
personally delivered protection money amounting to P545 million ($11.7 million)
to Estrada. He also alleged that Estrada pocketed P70 million out of Singson's
province's share of tobacco excise tax revenues.
Singson's expose led the House of Representatives to investigate, and in
November 2000 Estrada was formally impeached. In January 2001, Estrada became
the second Philippine president to be ousted by a so-called "people power"
movement, the first being the 1986 ouster of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Then-vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn in as Estrada's successor,
the plunder case against Estrada was pursued through the courts, and the former
leader was put under house arrest. Aside from Singson's allegations, Estrada was
also tried for stock manipulation and maintaining a bank account under a
fictitious name, Jose Velarde.
Estrada denied the four allegations and claimed that the charges were
politically motivated. He also claimed in his own defense that Singson's
testimony was tainted because he felt threatened by the government's plans to
The 211-page verdict is widely perceived to be fraught with political
considerations, but the anti-graft court nonetheless earned the public's respect
throughout the six years of proceedings. That's true even though a not-guilty
verdict would have had serious political repercussions for Arroyo's already
Although Estrada's organized mass support base has shown signs of inertia, with
Estrada-aligned groups such as the Union for the Masses and for Democracy and
Justice and the People's Movement Against Poverty losing miserably in the recent
party-list race, their capacity to mobilize people for massive protests and
rallies is still believed to be strong.
Various other interest groups, including rights organizations, political groups
and the legal community, have all roundly welcomed the verdict.
"It showed that it can be done ... that we can prosecute, complete the trial and
reach its logical conclusion," said lawyer Marlon Manuel, project director of
the Transparency and Accountability Network, a coalition of law practitioners
and civil-society groups. "It should serve as a lesson or a warning to others."
Law professor Edwin Lacierda described the ruling as "a pure victory for the
Philippine justice system ... for the first time a big fish was caught".
Human-rights lawyer Carlos Medina said the verdict showed that the "court is not
intimidated easily by whoever is accused. Estrada may be a former president, but
he is still powerful." Medina is also a convener of the election-watchdog group
Legal Network for Truthful Elections.
Opposition Senators Francis Pangilinan and Aquilino Pimentel have asked the
public to respect the ruling, despite lingering doubts about the court's
But the conviction of a former president is a double-edged sword that some
analysts believe could soon be turned on Arroyo. Shortly after the ruling was
handed down, Arroyo's critics lost no time in reminding the public that her
administration faces its own share of graft-ridden scandals for which it should
be held accountable.
Pangilinan said, "This conviction casts a very long and dark shadow on the
Arroyo administration," noting that her government has yet to come clean on
extrajudicial killings, a massive fertilizer scam, and other alleged anomalies.
Pimentel said that with Estrada's conviction, the next to be held accountable
should be Arroyo.
The political winds are increasingly blowing against Arroyo, who is scheduled to
step down from the presidency in 2010. Initial projections show that the next
president could come from the ranks of the opposition, judging by the recent
senatorial race, where opposition candidates took nine of 12 available seats.
Moreover, Estrada, even from behind bars, is expected to remain a political
kingmaker, through his command of influence over an estimated 30% of the voting
population. Arroyo, on the other hand, is increasingly being viewed as a
lame-duck president, despite having almost three years left in her elected term.
Estrada's conviction may have bought Arroyo political time and space. Yet an
opposition candidate could chose to run, at least partially, on the pledge if
elected to consider granting Estrada a pardon. Increasingly, a changing of the
political guard seems inevitable at the next presidential polls, and though down
and out today, Estrada may yet have his vindication.
Aries Rufo is a political reporter for Manila-based Newsbreak
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