HONG KONG: A Philippine court has agreed with the government and found former President Joseph Estrada guilty of plunder. Estrada claims the case was motivated entirely by politics. Both sides are right.
At one level, the verdict may be a victory for the rule of law. But it is unlikely that convicting the former president and sentencing him to life in prison will do much to clean up Philippine politics or government. To many, this is as much soap opera as serious justice.
The Marcos regime plundered on a much larger scale than the indolent Estrada managed in his brief career as president. Yet 20 years and innumerable court cases later, almost no one from the Marcos era has gone to prison. Imelda Marcos remains a wealthy celebrity, her children get elected to congress and two of the biggest beneficiaries of the theft control large corporations.
There is zero chance that Estrada, 70, will be imprisoned to the end of his life (the maximum sentence is 40 years). Most likely, any time he serves will not be more rigorous than the luxury house-arrest status he currently enjoys as the appeal process continues. Indeed, the muted reaction of his many supporters to the sentence indicated that they have few fears for the immediate future of their populist, former film-star hero.
Estrada's successor, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has scored a modest victory in seeing the former president convicted of "plundering" $42 million of public funds, including cash from the operator of an illegal gambling syndicate. The verdict of the anti-corruption court adds a little weight to the legality of his overthrow in 2001 by a temporary alliance of military, church, business and populist interests following the collapse of an impeachment case against him in the Senate.
But Arroyo knows only too well that harsh treatment of Estrada would not only increase the already high level of antagonism against her government. It would give her enemies new reason to press well-founded allegations of vote rigging in the 2004 elections that confirmed her in power. And tough treatment could open the way to retribution once she leaves office in 2010. The strong performance of anti-Arroyo senatorial candidates, including Estrada supporters, in elections earlier this year ensures that neither she nor her husband, the subject of several graft allegations, will have a quiet retirement if Estrada is viewed as a victim.
Philippine courts are not necessarily servile, and the Supreme Court is considered likely to uphold the decision of the anti-graft court. But the legal process could well be drawn out. Meanwhile there remains a distinct possibility that Arroyo will grant him a presidential pardon, which would get both of them off their separate hooks.
Corruption allegations have long been a central feature of Philippines politics, but, despite many exposes, whether by rivals or the media, nothing much seems to change.
As the Philippine writer Joel Rocamura once put it, "Nothing is done to end systemic corruption because the 'outs' do not wish to poison the wells for the day they become 'ins.' " Even if not personally greedy, politicians need money to fight elections, and in the absence of strong party organizations, funds must come from somewhere.
Corruption was the excuse for Estrada's overthrow. The underlying cause was his incompetence and an image he projected that the elite, and many foreign commentators, considered demeaning to the nation.
The major evidence against him came from a disgruntled illegal gambling operator. Such gambling remains rife and continues to support many a politician. There is no sign that politics has become cleaner. But Arroyo's image of hard work and administrative competence has so far helped her deflect allegations of serious wrongdoing, even though many who backed the overthrow of Estrada have turned against her.
Perhaps the conviction of Estrada, even if it never results in a prison term, will send a message to all politicians, including Arroyo. Though an acquittal would have looked bizarre, it is a step forward compared with what happened to the friends and family of Marcos. Perhaps the combined efforts of the higher judiciary, civil society and media will reduce the level of graft and improve the standard of governance. Filipinos will hope so, but few have high expectations.