Fall From Grace

For a man whose presidency has stumbled on moral issues, the Philippines' Joseph Estrada found refuge in an unlikely place last month: a Roman Catholic church. The country's church hierarchy, after all, has been one of his fiercest critics, leading the attacks on his alleged cronyism, corruption and nocturnal carousing. (Church leaders were especially appalled last month when the former actor gave a speech on family planning, just after introducing yet another of his many illegitimate children.) But on his 63d birthday, on Holy Wednesday, Estrada visited a church in the provincial town of Taytay, where people still cherish his image--first played out on the silver screen as a downtrodden hero who fights for the poor. The homespun president, known universally as "Erap," a play on the Tagalog word for "buddy," shared a meal of mango salad and sliced pork with 13 of the most bedraggled parishioners. After a group of children sang the Lord's Prayer, he handed out bags of noodles, rice and canned food, each emblazoned with his smiling face.

But Estrada's biggest boost came inside the church. The faithful, a handpicked crowd of friends, business people and government officials, listened as Father Larry Paraon vowed that his church would not betray Estrada as Judas betrayed Jesus. "Mr. President, you've only been in office for two years and [your critics] want you to perform miracles," he said. "We'll support you all the way to the end of your term. We promise: we will not be Judas." After the mass, Estrada, with his droopy mustache and hangdog eyes, faced the altar and bowed his head, while members of the audience stretched out their hands in his direction and prayed. "Please let him endure the scourge and the pain," intoned Father Sonny Ramirez. "He needs our prayers now more than at any time in his presidency."

Indeed he does. After a series of debilitating scandals, Estrada's approval rating has plunged from 65 percent last June to just over 20 percent today. The growing disenchantment has fueled jokes, protest and coup rumors, all of which spread quickly over the country's favorite new technology, cell-phone text messages. In some ways, the Philippines is still one of the healthiest countries in Asia: its democracy is boisterous, and its economy is growing. But there's a creeping sense that the country's future is in jeopardy. Guerrilla insurgencies in the south have grown--and last week Estrada was battling two separate hostage crises caused by the Islamic radicals (following story). Foreign investors, alarmed by new levels of corruption, are staying away. Estrada's style--a mixture of cronyism and government by decree--is raising questions about the strength of the country's democratic institutions. Senate opposition leader Raul Roco says: "Sometimes it seems he's taking us back to the days of [former dictator Ferdinand] Marcos."

Even longtime supporters like jobless computer technician Roy Llanzana hope the street protests will "send the president a wake-up call." Just before Easter, hundreds of poor Manila residents marched in a seven-stage "Calvary" procession in protest against corruption. At one stop, a theater troupe sang: "He's making a movie out of politics. His solutions are all for show." One group carried placards that played on his nickname: "ERAP: Estrada Resign as President." Others wore black shirts with a more threatening inscription referring to the downfall of Marcos: we toppled a tyrant. we can do it again.

It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Two years ago, when Estrada took office, the hopes of the country's 76 million people were extremely high. The Philippines had escaped the brunt of the Asian economic crisis, leaving it in the unusual position of being lauded by the World Bank. The guerrilla insurgencies were simmering but relatively quiet. Estrada was swept into office by the largest victory margin in the Philippines' short history of democracy; in a field of six, he won 40 percent of the votes. The Catholic Church condemned his drinking and womanizing, and the elite questioned his intelligence and his competence. But the poor loved Erap: they identified with the bumbling but goodhearted heroes he played in the movies and the extravagant promises he made as a candidate. The endless stream of Erap jokes--usually about his lack of intelligence or industriousness--only endeared him more to the masses. Estrada's staff even compiled them into a book called "Eraptions."

At first, Estrada's spontaneous style was a refreshing change for Filipinos bored by the straight-arrow orthodoxy of his predecessor, Fidel Ramos. His desire to attract foreign investors also heartened an international financial community worried by his populism. And he cracked down on crime by sending Marines into the streets. But it gradually became clear that Estrada was making decisions on the fly, often without going through the normal democratic channels. Estrada says he is "frustrated by red tape and bureaucracy," so he has ruled largely by decree. As of last week, he had issued more than 230 "executive orders" in less than two years.

The problem with this shoot-from-the-hip approach is the people Estrada lets hold the pistol. When he moved into the presidential residence last year, Estrada started having regular late-night parties with friends and businessmen. Estrada, a hard drinker who says he now imbibes just fine Italian wine, fired a top aide last month for telling reporters that, as a teetotaler, he (the aide) was often "the only sober person in the room at 4 o'clock in the morning." This so-called midnight cabinet not only talks and drinks and sings karaoke; it also advises the president on important matters of state. In some cases, according to people who have attended the late-night sessions, the president--upon hearing some new idea for a project at3 a.m.--has picked up the phone, awakened the corresponding minister and ordered the project done. Former Housing minister Karina David, one of several top officials who have resigned in frustration, left because Estrada assigned one of his friends to share her responsibilities. In her resignation letter, David warned the president about relying on informal advisers. "They may often give you distorted information or, worse, engage in manipulation for self-serving interests," she wrote.

But at least the economy is doing fine, right? Estrada emphasizes the need to look at the "fundamentals rather than the theatricals." And indeed, the basic numbers are strong: growth is around 3.5 percent, inflation is at 6.6 percent (a 12-year low) and foreign reserves have nearly doubled, to $12 billion, during his administration. But after emerging from the economic crisis poised to lead the region, the Philippines is being surpassed, again, by its fast-growing neighbors. "We had real opportunity to move ahead," says Joel Binamira, a 30-something financial analyst who, like many of his peers, has grown disillusioned with the future. The country's Stock Exchange was the region's worst performer in 1999. Critics say that cronyism tilts the playing field in favor of Estrada's friends. For example, Estrada called off the investigation of a $64 million tax evasion case against his friend, airline owner Lucio Tan, shortly after he took office. And corruption is rampant. "No matter how good your product is, you will never get the business in the Philippines unless you have the right agent," says one foreign executive who gained direct access to Estrada.

Filipinos didn't care too much about the corruption issue until a Stock Exchange scandal erupted last fall. Why? Because the protagonist was one of Estrada's close friends, gaming tycoon Dante Tan. The stock price for one of Tan's companies, BW Resources, jumped from two pesos in January to 107 pesos in October, before plummeting to 30 pesos in a single day. By late September the frenzy was so furious that this one stock accounted for 60 percent of the Exchange's volume. One cabinet minister said Tan tried to sell him and other ministers stocks at a reduced rate, promising them a 50 to 100 percent return in two months. The February report of a Stock Exchange investigation accused Tan and several brokers of insider trading and stock manipulation. Tan vehemently denies the charges. The scandal has killed foreign-investor confidence. But what riled Filipinos most was the accusation, lodged by Securities and Exchange Commission chief Perfecto Yasay, that Estrada had called five times asking him to stop the investigation of Tan. Estrada told NEWSWEEK that he did call Yasay, but only to "expedite the investigation." Estrada was so angered by the charge that he called up a radio talk show on which Yasay was appearing and yelled: "You are a liar! May lightning strike you!"

Lightning actually struck twice--on Estrada. Just one month later Sister Christine Tan resigned as director of the board of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. The 69-year-old nun, beloved as much for her work with the poor as her strong stand against the Marcos dictatorship, accused the president and his family of diverting 87 percent of the state lottery funds (about $12.5 million) to support their own programs. The Estrada family denies the charges, and Sister Tan is not alleging that they did anything illegal. But she described cases in which the Estrada clan used the money for political purposes. In one, Jinggoy Estrada, the president's son and the mayor of San Juan, acquired 200 ambulances for his municipality--and plastered them with his name. In another, mobile clinics purchased with the charity's money bear the words erap mobile clinic in red. "Clever?" asks Sister Tan. "I think it's shameless."

The scandals have fueled some unexpected protests, too. In March, a group of young professionals came up with the idea of printing black stickers with a slanted exclamation point as a symbol of discontent. The first 100,000 were gobbled up almost immediately, so they've now printed more than 800,000. "It was meant as a simple gauge of public sentiment, not as a move to bring the guy down," says Joel Binamira, one of the founders of the so-called silent-protest movement. "We clearly tapped into a nerve." But the movement has stumbled in the past few weeks. Anti-Estrada politicians have hijacked it, hoping to turn it into a powerful campaign tool for next year's legislative elections. If they can regain control in the legislature from Estrada's party, they vow to push for impeachment. And a planned three-day "noise barrage" ended with a whimper rather than a bang. "They lived up to the word 'silent'," joked Estrada. "These people are an alliance of losers."

Still, the president seems to be running scared. His supporters have printed stickers with an orange exclamation point saying: we're still with erap. Estrada himself has gone into full campaign mode, visiting his bases of support--like Taytay--to counter the impression that he has lost touch with his roots. According to his advisers, the president has also been curtailing his nighttime activities, attending morning cabinet meetings, and shielding himself from his more controversial friends. He may even be finding religion. During a recent interview with News-week, Trade and Finance Minister Jose Pardo received a cellular-phone call from the president confirming the time of a spiritual retreat that weekend. "You will see a new president," said Pardo. "He will be building up his mystique."

Estrada may be revived--if not resurrected--by democracy itself. Nobody really wants the military to take power again, and few think a coup is likely. Estrada called the coup rumors "the funniest thing I have heard of." So far, the usual antidotes--a cabinet shake-up, a crackdown on crime, tough talk on guerrilla movements--have not worked to reverse his slide. But in the past few weeks, Estrada has worked together with the legislature to pass important pieces of economic-reform legislation, including bills that will make it safer and easier for foreign investors. He plans to establish a presidential anticorruption commission. But Estrada's unpredictable governance is costing the Philippines, as other Asian countries embrace the global economy. "If we continue this way for the next four years, it will mean the collapse of our economy and our institutions," says one former high government official. "Right now, Erap's lucky because the economy is pretty sound. But it won't last. And what will happen then?" Filipinos would rather not have to answer that question. In the meantime, they have little alternative but to pray that Estrada can, like his movie roles, be a hero in the end.