PEOPLE POWER II

At noon on Saturday, Joseph Estrada was holed up in the palm-fringed oasis of Malacanang Palace, clinging to his last illusion of power. Real power had already slipped out of the Filipino president's grasp after a tumultuous impeachment trial. It wasn't simply that military planes were buzzing the palace, trying to coax him to leave. Or that Estrada no longer had any support from the Army brass or other power centers in his government. Nearly a million raucous anti-Estrada protesters were calling for his head on the site of the 1986 People Power revolution, an upheaval that toppled former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and propelled housewife Corazon Aquino to the presidency. As the clock struck noon on Saturday--exactly 13 hours ahead of George W. Bush's Inaugural moment in Washington--all eyes were fixed, again, on a diminutive woman who would try to lead the Philippines out of turmoil. In her gray suit and purple eye shadow, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took the oath of office and then shook hands with Aquino. The new president told the wildly cheering crowd that she was filled with "a sense of awe, because Filipinos had done it again through People Power, [making] a new beginning possible."

It was hard to ignore the sense of deja vu in Manila last week. After Estrada's impeachment trial broke down in mutual recriminations on Tuesday, the endgame followed a script that was reminiscent of 1986: four days of massive street protests led by rock bands and the Roman Catholic Church; a series of last-minute defections by top military brass who had vowed never to be disloyal, and the hasty crowning of a new female president. And, as a final act, the ignominious departure of her disgraced predecessor.

All in all, it was high drama in the Philippines, a country that often seems to lurch from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again. Estrada, who spent much of his term gambling and carousing, was a roguish former movie star who most Filipinos believe disgraced his office and their nation. Arroyo, a Georgetown University classmate of Bill Clinton's, is a respected economist and the daughter of an ex-president. Her mere presence is likely to buoy the stock and currency markets as well as the foreign investors who were scared away by the country's instability and corruption. But in a young democracy struggling to get on its feet, the roller-coaster ride of Estrada's impeachment trial and Arroyo's swearing-in also raises some serious questions: How did it come to this again? And how will the new government reunite the divided country and rebuild its economy?

Estrada's downfall, ironically, came just when it seemed that he was about to escape impeachment. Last Tuesday, prosecutors in the six-week-long trial sought to submit bank records as evidence to prove their claim that Estrada had earned money from kickbacks and insider trading amounting to more than $60 million. But the Senate voted 11-10 in favor of keeping the records sealed, a vote that virtually ensured acquittal. It was a Pyrrhic victory. The House prosecutors quit in angry protest, halting the trial and stoking the opposition. Cardinal Jaime Sin, a key player in the 1986 revolution, asked people to take the fight from the courts to the streets. Within hours, thousands of protesters were marching on the streets of Manila, demanding Estrada's resignation. But he refused to go.

With a stalemate developing, rumors started flying about an impending coup. Arroyo, 53, who had quit Estrada's cabinet to lead the opposition, said: "I warn those plotting a civilian-military junta to take over the reins of government that the people will certainly oppose this, and you will bear the brunt of their collective indignation." The military, in fact, had something else in mind. Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado initially responded to Arroyo's warning by saying that the Army would not participate in the political scene. But two days later, on Friday, the staunch loyalist visited Estrada to deliver a devastating blow: he and the other top officers were withdrawing their support and giving it to Arroyo. The military establishment tried as hard as it could to stay out, he told the morose president. But something had to give.

When news spread about the military defections, the street party began in earnest. Only this time Estrada, the Partyer-in-Chief who had outraged Filipinos with his all-night binges and inattention to duty, was not invited.

As millions danced on the streets, the gregarious Estrada found himself in a frightening situation: he was utterly alone. Gone were all the supplicants and sycophants. Gone were the cronies of the midnight cabinet that played mahjongg and cut business deals late into the night. Most of his official cabinet defected on Friday night, including the national police chief and his top economic ministers. A haggard-looking Estrada appeared on national television, calling for snap presidential elections in which he would not participate. Opposition spokesman Renato Corona rejected the offer: "It's obvious that President Estrada is completely out of touch with reality." Indeed, before 5 a.m., according to presidential adviser Lito Banayo, Estrada yelled down the phone line at armed forces Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes: "You can only take my corpse out of here."

Estrada, of course, is not an autocrat like Marcos was. A former B-movie actor known for playing downtrodden cops with a heart of gold, he had deep support among the poor. But his bluster ended there. Sapped of his power in the final hours, he could not even secure immunity from prosecution. Estrada slunk out of the palace on Saturday afternoon, soon after Arroyo was sworn in as president. Flanked by his wife and son, he limped onto the dilapidated barge that took him to a waiting plane.

Now it's up to Arroyo to pick up the pieces. A woman accustomed to power--she used to prance through Malacanang during the presidency of her father, Diosdado Macapagal, in the 1960s--she has prepared herself all her life for this role. Arroyo has obsessively pursued her father's legacy, even reading his memoirs religiously for inspiration and guidance. But she is under no illusions that healing the wounds and rebuilding the economy will be easy. "The task is formidable," she told the crowd after her Inauguration, "so I pray that we will all be one." For one day, at least, Filipinos were.

PEOPLE POWER II | News