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Paris, Friday, October 13, 2000

Payoff Scandal Tarnishes Manila's Political System

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
HONG KONG - Allegations that he received payoffs from illegal gambling are confronting Joseph Estrada of the Philippines with the most serious crisis of his presidency. Whatever the truth of the matter and whatever the outcome for the president, the allegations say as much about the flaws in the Philippines' political system as they do about Mr. Estrada personally.

The allegation that he received 400 million pesos ($8.6 million) from jueteng , an illegal but widespread numbers game, came from a former friend and drinking buddy, a politician, local warlord and crime boss, Luis ''Chavit'' Singson, governor of Ilocos Sur Province. Mr. Singson's ''confession'' followed a falling out with Mr. Estrada after a rival gambling boss and presidential pal, Charlie Ang, received a contract to run a legalized version of the game.

None of this is a total surprise. Though Mr. Estrada has served only 27 months of a six-year term, his administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption and favors granted to business figures with dubious reputations and particular expertise in the gambling industry. One such, the former presidential adviser Mark Jimenez, is sought by the United States on criminal charges.

The former police chief and the former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission are among those who have alleged presidential interference to favor or protect his business buddies.

The general reaction seems to be that though Mr. Singson is, by his own admission, a thoroughly dubious character now being used by opposition politicians against the president, his allegations are credible. ''A falling out among thieves,'' as one politician put it.

Proof is quite another matter, and a successful impeachment by the Congress is another issue altogether.

The likelihood is that Mr. Estrada will survive but the presidency and the political system will be left tarnished. Even the Senate majority leader, Francisco Tatad, an Estrada supporter, admits that the president must remake his governing style and ''discard the characters who have brought disrepute to the presidency.'' The episode has brought together a coalition which includes the left and Manila's archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Sin, to achieve maximum exposure of the Estrada scandal which they see as a sign of deeper ills.

The scandal points up more than just flaws in the president's choice of friends. Mr. Estrada did not invent Mr. Singson. The governor is an example of a class of local bosses who remain at the core of the political system, often inheriting power as well as money and holding sway in local communities through money, reputation, threats and occasional assassinations of rivals.

In the Philippines, the president and senators are elected from a nationwide slate, but congressmen and governors are elected locally. A two-way system of patronage exists with a president using state funds and favors to buy the loyalty of local representatives. Governorships offer business opportunities for political families and thus money to stay in office. The bureaucracy is generally too weak, and corrupt, to prevent misuse of funds by politicians.

Mr. Estrada's personal proximity to the likes of Mr. Singson has left him very exposed. But no president can ignore the interests of feudal and local bosses who deliver local votes and whose support in the House of Representatives the executive needs.

Despite its evident freedoms, the Philippines remains dominated by a small political and business elite which to those outside the circle, foreign businessmen as well as Filipinos, appears astonishingly lacking in civic values.

Corruption, smuggling and tax evasion are so rampant that exposure by the lively press does little to improve matters. Skeptics on the left in particular say that whatever the evidence, Congress will never impeach the president on the jueteng issue because so many politicians are beneficiaries of it.

The quality of public life has deteriorated under Mr. Estrada, reversing some of the improvement which took place under Presidents Fidel Ramos and Corazon Aquino. But unless the Philippines looks at the underlying problems of its social and political system, more anguish than good is likely to come from impeaching the president.