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OCTOBER 30, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 17

Bullit Marquez/AP.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Manila on Oct. 18 to demand the resignation of beleaguered President Joseph Estrada.

Sound and Fury
Yes, it's People Power time again in the Philippines. But don't expect this round to have much success

Symbolism can seem like destiny in the Philippines. The country has a movie star for a President—one who unleashes army battalions when he wants to recall his roles as a crime fighter, and who marches into Manila slums to evoke his screen image as a champion of the poor. Even the kickback scandal that currently plagues Joseph Estrada seems to keep with his reputation as a hard-drinking, backroom-dealing, slightly shady pol.

Those who would unseat him hope to capitalize on the symbolic as well. The icons of the 1986 People Power movement have come out in force to demand that Estrada resign over charges that he accepted more than $8 million in proceeds from illegal gambling operations known as jueteng. Jaime Cardinal Sin, who sparked the call to revolution then, condemned Estrada at Mass in Manila. The woman who led that middle-class revolt, Corazon Aquino, wants to shame Estrada into leaving office while the charges are investigated. And the woman at her side last week—diminutive Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—looks for all the world like the symbol who would take Aquino's place, leading a movement that would bring Estrada down in disgrace.

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THE PHILIPPINES: High-Stakes Gamble
Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faces an uphill struggle as leader of the movement to oust President Joseph Estrada

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Looks, however, can be deceiving. The role of heir apparent seems to suit Arroyo well: when she returned to the Philippines after a 12-day trip, nearly 30 foreign diplomats were among those who met her at Ninoy Aquino Airport (named after Aquino's martyred husband). Arroyo, too, derives some of her stature from a male relation: her father was respected former President Diosdado Macapagal. But she faces a less clear-cut situation than Aquino did—and one with no guarantee of success.

In many ways Arroyo is more accomplished than Aquino was in 1986. A trained economist, she studied at Georgetown University in the United States—where, she likes to recall publicly, one of her classmates was Bill Clinton—and earned a Ph.D in economics from the University of the Philippines. She was brought into the government by Aquino, who named her undersecretary of trade and industry. Elected to the Senate in 1992, she authored 55 laws on economic and social reform during a six-year term. She won a landslide victory to become Vice President in 1998, even though she is not from the ruling party (the post is elected separately from the President).

The position, though, has forced the normally soft-spoken Arroyo to become even more cautious than usual in her statements. While she has resigned from Estrada's cabinet and agreed to lead the opposition, she still refuses to call for the President's resignation, for fear of appearing self-serving. "We have to begin the process of restoring civil and business confidence," she says vaguely. So far she has agreed to meet with other opposition leaders only to discuss "an alternative national agenda." She may not even attend anti-Estrada rallies planned for Manila this week.

The forces behind her have been similarly measured. A "massive" rally called for last Wednesday drew about 10,000 people to the capital's Makati business district, mostly from various left-wing and activist groups. Many of the loudest voices demanding Estrada's resignation come from the country's business Élite, who admire Arroyo's economic credentials and lineage, while despising Estrada's fumbling of the economy. "Markets react to political problems, and we still have a political crisis on our hands," warns Guillermo Luz, head of the Makati Business Club, a group of influential businessmen. The peso has hit an all-time low of 49 to the dollar, and the Manila stock market has reached its lowest point in two years. But Estrada can still point to a positive growth forecast for this year; even Luz concedes that the poor, Estrada's support base, aren't likely to feel the effects of the crisis until next year.

Back in 1986, demonstrators at least carried the weight of moral authority. This time Estrada supporters are having a field day with his chief accuser, provincial governor Luis Singson, who says he brought Estrada's cut of the jueteng proceeds—amounting to $100,000 every two weeks—to the President personally. The President's men have also begun whispering about ties between jueteng operators and Aquino's brother, as well as Arroyo herself. They note that the Vice President served as godmother to a local gambling boss' son; Arroyo says she agreed to the role only out of a sense of Christian duty.

Estrada and his supporters have even less to fear in the legislature, where the ruling party commands a majority. A bill of impeachment filed last week could go precisely nowhere: the House of Representatives has 143 days in which to decide whether to send the motion to the Senate for a trial, and there are only 56 working days left before Congress goes into a month-long election recess. Powerful ways and means committee chairman Danilo Suarez, an Estrada backer, says he had to bully ruling party legislators into supporting their President. But in any case, the opposition lacks the numbers to push the motion to a floor vote or to win a trial in the Senate. Even Aquino concedes that the process is unlikely to oust Estrada. "It will be long and drawn out, it will put truth at the mercy of numbers and it will leave justice in the hands of those whose single overriding concern is their reelection," she says.

That, ironically, may be the greatest difference between this crisis and the one that Aquino rode to the presidency: Estrada can still claim a constitutional right to govern—as well as a certain degree of popular support. In recent days he has furiously buffed his populist image, visiting squatter camps, launching rural electrification programs, railing against a conspiracy of the rich and powerful to unseat him. "These people never thought of anybody but their businesses, their own interests. They don't care about you," he told a crowd of cheering slum-dwellers in Manila last week. Unless Estrada resigns voluntarily—something he has sworn not to do—his opponents have little chance of forcing him from office legally.

Those odds could keep Arroyo from playing her apparently destined role. If she were to assume the presidency now, she could not run for the office again during elections in 2004. That's a big risk to take for a cause that isn't likely to produce a quick or easy result. This particular drama is far from over.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Manila

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