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 1965.

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 power holders.

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 better.

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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