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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Estrada's Options
For the Philippines and for Asia, resignation would be least painful

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In a democracy, noted the late American statesman Adlai Stevenson, anybody can be president. "That's one of the risks you take," he said. Filipinos now agitating to be rid of embattled President Joseph Ejercito Estrada will no doubt empathize. Just 28 months into his two-year term, Estrada finds himself in a virtually untenable position. It stems not solely from recent allegations by a provincial governor, Luis Singson, that the president took kickbacks from an illegal gambling operation and tobacco taxes. There are also the cronyism and corruption claims that have dogged the onetime matinee idol throughout his tenure. The result is a crisis of investor confidence, which has left the peso hovering around 50 to the dollar, and a nervous population half-expecting a military coup. Neighboring nations are jittery too, fearing a reprise of the currency contagion that sparked the Crisis of 1997.

What next? The most plausible scenarios are all grim. The Philippine business community is aghast at the economic fallout. The political opposition has launched impeachment proceedings in Congress. And Christian leaders say Estrada has lost his moral credibility and must resign. Polls show that most Filipinos believe Singson's kickback claims, despite vigorous denials by the president. In other words, citizens are taking the word of a man who has admitted making millions from the illegal jueteng game over that of their head of state. Some leaders might see a message in that. Estrada instead cites other surveys showing that a majority of Filipinos still support him. But popularity is no longer the point. What will decide the president's fate — and the Philippines' near-term future — is the state of the economy.

While not busy raising interest rates in a futile bid to prop up the peso, central bank governor Rafael Buenaventura bravely champions his country's sound economic fundamentals. With projected growth of 4.5% and a current-account balance of $8 billion, these are indeed far from discouraging. Yet armed with that knowledge, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank have publicly expressed disquiet over the latest developments. The World Bank has delayed a $400-million loan because budget-deficit targets have not been met. Credit rating agency Standard & Poor has downgraded an upbeat assessment it made just two weeks ago. The change, said S&P, "reflects growing concerns about the government's ability to undertake effective economic management during a period of political uncertainty."

What happens next appears largely up to Estrada. For the moment, a reprise of the People Power revolution that drove Ferdinand Marcos from office seems unlikely. The economic jolts have not yet filtered through to bite most Filipinos. If the peso continues plummeting, however, a popular revolt cannot be discounted. That, of course, would mean mob decree replacing the rule of law. Whatever Estrada's faults, he was elected fairly — and by a large margin. Not only is he entitled, as any other citizen, to due process, but a civil uprising against the president will only plunge the Philippines into deeper economic strife and worsen the pain.

The impeachment option is damned by similar concerns. With a clear majority in Congress, Estrada's party can block any such move — and take its time doing so. The process could take anything from months to several years. Politics will be paralyzed and, again, the economy will pay the price. The same will happen if the president decides to take a leave of absence while Singson's charges are investigated. Another option, a snap election, would entail identical sacrifices. There is no provision under the Constitution for such a poll — leaving aside the contentious notion that a person be allowed to run for president more than once. Any attempt to change the charter would be highly divisive, and a lengthy process.

That leaves resignation as the best hope for a speedy solution. But Estrada insists he won't go. He also says, in the manner of a man in the grip of some celluloid fantasy: "This is just like the movies. In the movies, especially my movies, the good guy always gets beaten up but he doesn't give up. He fights to the end and eventually wins." The president thus invites the conclusion that he would protect his own position at the expense of his nation's — and perhaps the region's — interests. That is not such an unusual stance in politics. But it is one devoid of both honor and humanity.

Of course, removing Estrada would not cure corruption in the Philippines. Graft is virtually endemic in the society. Many of those now calling for the president's head are similarly, if not as publicly, tainted. To avert a similar crisis in the future, a thorough clean-up is needed. As a start, the state should consider funding presidential elections to reduce political debts, or at least place limits on the size of campaign donations. More transparency in business would help too. To check under-the-table dealings, information about bidders for contracts above a certain size should be publicized. Anti-graft laws and institutions need to be strengthened.

Even such basic reforms would require enormous political will, as they infringe on a host of entrenched interests. Only a resolute leader who sets an irreproachable personal example stands any chance of making headway. With his presidency so deeply compromised, Estrada is not that leader.

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