by Philip Bowring
Hongkong: The ousting of Joseph Estrada has provided the Philippines
with a more competent President in Gloria Arroyo but it has also left
the notion of constitutional democracy in tatters. Mr Estrada's removal
may have been desirable and peaceful but the end does not justify the
means. A nation which sees itself as an Asian democratic exemplar now
boasts only one normal succession - that of Fidel Ramos in 1992 - since
Ferdinand Marcos defeated Mrs Arroyo's father, President Macapagal in
In the short run, the sudden end to the Estrada corruption crisis
will bring benefits. Much of the nation will heave a sigh of relief.
The peso and stockmarkets will rise, some investment will return, neighbors
and allies will be visibly happier dealing with a hard-working, well
educated, economically literate President used to mixing in elite circles
and behaving with decorum. However, far from being the victory for democracy
that is being claimed by the leaders of the anti-Estrada movement such
as Cardinal Sin, the evolution of events has been a defeat for due process.
For many it merely confirms the fragility of political institutions
in the Philippines and the likelihood that the streets will become a
regular location for political action. Estrada has been ousted by a
combination of forces, but neither the proper constitutional process
-- judgement by the Senate -- nor the ballot box have been among them.
It is not clear that even after all the lurid corruption claims that
emerged during his trial that Estrada would have lost had his future
been put to a popular vote.
For sure, the shortage of overt popular support left him vulnerable
to the opportunist coalition of church, business elite and left which
orchestrated the "People Power II" movement. But in the end it was not
the mass protests which ended his presidency but the defection of the
army brass. Cardinal Sin, as ever the ambitious king-maker, and former
presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos actively encouraged the military
to take sides against a properly elected president.
Had these self-proclaimed democrats forgotten how they were protected
from Colonel (now Senator) Honasan's coup attempt. Apart from Mr Estrada,
the loser over the last few days has been the one other nationally elected
body, the Senate. The majority of Senators voted against opening new
lines of inquiry into Mr Estrada's alleged assets. The opposition's
refusal to accept this decision took the issue out of the constitutional
process to the streets and the military.
Whatever the individual senators motives for voting as they did, they
were the constituted authority. Was Estrada's crime corruption? Or his
mistresses? Or incompetence? Or offending the elite by handing out favors
to the wrong people? The lines are blurred. What remains clear is that
politics (and the church too, according to some critics) in the Philippines
now as ever is commonly financed by illegal gambling rackets, and by
the interplay or contracts and favors between center and provincial
If it was likely that the evidence at the trial and now Mr Estrada's
ouster would lead to a wholesale cleanup of the political process, the
means of his removal might be justified. But that looks unlikely. Mrs
Arroyo's is from a family more deeply embroiled in the system than Mr
Estrada, the outsider, the film star whose celluloid celebrity mattered
more than money. Her running mate in 1998, Mr Ramos' choice of successor,
was Jose de Venecia, a onetime Marcos associate famous for his persuasive
powers with fellow congressmen.
As Philippine writer Joel Rocamora once put it, exposes of corruption
form a vital part of the system of political competition but nothing
is done to end systemic corruption because the "outs" do not wish to
poison the wells for the day they become the "ins". To this day, no
one has been jailed for the pillage conducted under Marcos. The Ramos
administration was competent but hardly a model of clean government.
As for President Macapagal's administration, the less remembered the
Mrs Arroyo will want to run a technocratic administration. She has
three years before the next presidential election is due. She will have
a honeymoon period which should allow her supporters to do well in the
coming congressional elections. But beyond that the situation is murky.
The Philippines shows no signs of achieving significant per capita economic
growth despite billions in remittances from overseas. The elite is inbred
and selfish, the bureaucracy weak, the connections between business
and government too close for comfort and the church as opposed as ever
to the family planning needed to reduce poverty.
Now the ideological left, never far from the surface, may be re-invigorated
by its role in street politics. If strong institutions, not individuals
or systems, are the basis of good governance, it is hard to find much
to cheer in the manner of Mr Estrada's departure. ends
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