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OCTOBER 27, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 42 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The Estrada Scandal Show
If it has the flavor of a rerun, bring in new scriptwriters
JESSICA ZAFRA is a newspaper columnist and talkshow host in Manila

Way before the current American presidential campaign, Filipinos knew that politics and show business were the same thing. We knew it even before we elected a former movie action star president. People in other democracies think that campaign rallies are for candidates to present their platforms. We see right through the illusion to the truth: a rally is an audition. Who cares about action plans and ideologies? We want to see the candidates sing and dance, and measure their commitment by their willingness to make complete fools of themselves in order to get our votes. We already know what they stand for: they stand for getting elected. After that comes the long fadeout, and badly-scripted reality. It's like the last scene in The Candidate, where the newly elected Robert Redford turns to his handlers and says, "What do we do now?"

Politics is the major source of entertainment in the Philippines today. Since provincial governor and presidential buddy Luis "Chavit" Singson accused President Joseph Estrada of taking huge kickbacks from the illegal numbers game jueteng, the big show has been the congressional and Senate hearings on the scandal. The televised coverage probably rates almost as highly as the Mexican soap operas, which have a fanatical following. A key player in the People Power Revolution of 1986, the Catholic Church has called on Estrada to resign. The fragmented political opposition is deciding whether to echo the church's message, begin an impeachment trial, or call for snap elections. Rallies against Estrada are being organized. Student activism, which we thought was dead because everyone was auditioning to be on MTV, might even be resurrected.

Show business is an aspect of Philippine life also apparent in the split-level Catholicism practiced by many. They can keep mistresses and break other commandments, but as long as they go home to their legal wives and attend church on Sundays they maintain the veneer of respectability. During the Marcos regime, one could denounce the dictatorship with no regard for his personal safety, and then attend one of Imelda's fabulous parties. Why not, when one is related to the Marcoses by blood, marriage, or business? Nothing is real, everything is for show.

The historian Reynaldo Ileto has shown that the Philippine Revolution of 1898 bore the themes of the pasyon, the narrative of the passion of Jesus Christ performed during Lent. Like Christ, the national hero Jose Rizal suffered and died at the hands of the colonizers. The themes were seen again in the protest movement which began with the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983 and ended with the peaceful Edsa revolution of 1986. It's said that Filipinos do not like confrontation. Someone has to die in order to galvanize them into action. Aquino died, Marcos fell, we celebrated, and the show went on. The Marcoses and their cronies faced charges. Fourteen years later no one has really been punished and many of the players are back in power.

The latest scandal has the flavor of a rerun, because the charges against Estrada aren't exactly new. There are no secrets in the Philippines: our gossip network is too sophisticated and thanks to cellphone text messaging, rumors travel even faster. For years we've heard rumors about Estrada's links to gambling and his messy personal life, and yet the people elected him president. He convinced the masses that he was one of them (he isn't poor) and would deliver them from poverty. So far they remain undelivered, but they may still support Estrada, whom they see as the underdog being attacked by rich people who speak better English. Their faith in him will be tested in the coming weeks. The state of the nation may be summed up thus: 48.50 pesos to $1.

What is most riveting about the jueteng hearings, apart from the spectacle of politicians contorting themselves to defend Estrada or dissociate from him, is the money. Singson mentions blinding sums: billions from gambling operations, millions lost in a single mahjong session. This is a country where one peso can't buy much, but it can buy hope: you place a bet on jueteng and win a little money — nothing great, but you know where your family's next meal is coming from. It is one thing to shake down large corporations. But there is a special horror in profiting from the piddling hopes of the poor.

If Estrada were to resign or be ousted, would it solve our problems? Of course not. Would we elect competent persons, or vote for the most entertaining personality? The fact is that politics is seen as the natural next step for movie and TV stars. With the local movie industry in suspended animation, actors are flocking to TV to maintain their high profiles and keep their election chances alive. Perhaps one happy result of the Estrada experience will be that actors will not win in next year's local and congressional elections. We hope.

Whatever happens in the ongoing political soap opera, young Filipinos, the generation with a stake in this country's future, must start changing our show-business view of politics. Otherwise we shall find ourselves like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, doomed to relive the same day over and over again. This month the reissue of The Exorcist opens in Manila. Witness a familiar theme: the expulsion of evil forces.

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