Learning From The Estrada Embarrassment

For two and a half years I have traveled with a secret embarrassment: I have dreaded being asked the question "Are you from the Philippines?" Not that I was ashamed to be a Filipino, but I did not relish the inevitable follow-up: "Your president is That Actor." I didn't need to be reminded that my president was a big-haired action star who drank and gambled, hung out with lowlifes, kept several mistresses and seemed proud of his lack of education. As I watched the TV footage of President Estrada limping out of Malacanang Palace, I asked myself the question foreigners have been asking: Why did we elect this guy?

The usual explanation for Estrada's victory is that the voters believed his on-screen image as the savior of the poor. He managed to convince the masses that he was one of them. I don't buy this reasoning. For one thing, Estrada hasn't made a movie in many years, and it's obvious that he isn't poor. Like a true populist, he understoodthe symbols and gestures that mattered to those on society's lower rungs. The upper classes inadvertently aided Estrada's campaign by making fun of him; he reveled in his image as the underdog.

As a friend of mine noted, the leader of a country embodies the collective unconscious of his people. Can it be that we are Joseph Estrada, and Joseph Estrada is us? If so, perhaps he is our shadow. Carl Jung wrote that the shadow personifies everything that we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves. Did we vote for Estrada despite his being a fun-loving womanizer, gambler and all-around overindulger, or because he is all of the above?

Either way, we are getting better at removing lousy governments. It took us three years, after Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated, to topple the Marcos dictatorship. It has taken us three months since Gov. Luis Chavit Singson exposed the president's links to illegal gambling to oust Estrada. In 1986 we rallied round the martyr's widow, Corazon Aquino, in response to the call of Cardinal Jaime Sin. Last week we did not need a figurehead or even a call to arms. When we realized that the impeachment trial was rigged, we got so mad that the same thought popped into our minds: Let's go to EDSA! Without a plan or a designated leader, we poured into the streets, summoning everyone we knew by cell phone text message.

Joseph Estrada thought he had us fooled. He thought we couldn't tell the difference between the on-screen hero and the off-screen crook. In the end it was Estrada who couldn't tell the difference between movie myth and political reality. Even after he was abandoned by the cabinet, the military and his movie-star friends, he didn't seem to get it: he asked if he could remain president for five to seven days. "Estrada did not understand the word 'Resign'," said film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya. "He has to be ordered to 'Cut!' and 'Pack up!' "

The Philippines is a young country, and we are maturing as a democracy. Getting Estrada out of office will not solve our problems, but it could be the beginning of real change. Fifteen years from now, I do not want to be standing in the same giant mosh pit, demanding the ouster of yet another bad leader in office.