3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
the Philippines and for Asia, resignation would be least painful
Bird Power :A
conservationist victory marks a watershed in Hong Kong
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 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
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
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