The return of the populist hero

Print edition : July 18, 1998

With the election of Joseph Ejercito alias 'Erap' Estrada as its powerful President, the Phililppines has an exciting and also unpredictable phase ahead.

JOSEPH EJERCITO became Erap Estrada because he wanted to become a film star. The son of a government engineer and a musician mother, Ejercito was already the black sheep of the family, a college dropout with no particular distinction except an ability to use his fists effectively to fight for causes he espoused. His upper class family could not countenance the family name being sullied by such a disreputable profession as acting, which required the name change. But this particular decision turned out to be one of those life-transforming shifts that has changed not only his own life, but now the life of a nation as well.

The change of name may have been forced on President of the Philippines Estrada, but the choice of name turned out to be strategic, even prophetic. Estrada means street in Spanish, which has contributed much of the vocabulary of present-day Filipino and "Erap" is pare (or friend) spelt backwards. The persona the young man was acquiring was that of the local boy, the man in the street who represented and fought for the interests of common people. This was an image assiduously built up through his many films, which highlighted the idealistic angry young man fighting against injustice.

From acting to politics may seem an obvious move, but it is not as easy or inevitable as it appears, as our own Amitabh Bachan could no doubt testify. And in the specific context of Philippine politics of the time, with its dense network of familial ties and patron-client relations, such a move was not automatically guaranteed to be successful. The country's political life was and remains dominated by family relations to a degree that is startling even to those who have grown accustomed to the dynastic ways of some Indian political parties. Despite the provisions of the 1987 Constitution against political dynasties, they remain a central feature of national and local politics in the Philippines. Certain families control particular areas, regardless of which political party they choose to belong to, and several political offices appear almost to be hereditary in nature.

Philippines President Joseph Erap Estrada watching the military parade during the 51st anniversary of the Philippines Air Force on July 8. Estrada, a former movie star who wears a wrist band to cover a scar on his right hand, now sports a wrist band with the presidential seal.-PAT ROQUE / AP

Thus, the children of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos have become Senator and Governor of a province, while Imelda Marcos' brothers continue to control her native region of Leyte. Cory Aquino's family - including her brother, uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law and sister-in-law - all fought for and won office especially during her tenure as President. During the Fidel Ramos administration, the important political dynasties continued to prosper, and even in the latest elections, the vast proportion of new entrants to the Senate and Congress are children or relations of those who held office earlier. The newly elected Vice-President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is the daughter of a former President. It is common to see wives and children step into the political offices vacated by husbands and fathers on death or illness. While Estrada himself was without family connections when he started out in politics, his son Jinggoy is now the third-time Mayor of San Juan, the first office held by his father.

Erap's foray into politics without the benefit of such connections was obviously aided by his familiarity and popularity with local voters because of his film career. But that could not be the only reason for his success. He was Mayor of San Juan, which is a part of Metro Manila, for 16 years - a tenure which was marked by some action against crime but no wild successes. This was a period when he became close to Ferdinand Marcos, then effectively the country's dictator, and also to some Marcos business cronies such as Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco. Estrada became a Senator in 1987, after the famous "Edsa revolution" which brought down the Marcos regime, and subsequently established a reputation by becoming one of the most vocal opponents of the United States military bases in the country. He even produced and acted in a film against the U.S. bases. The curious contradiction between his attitude to Marcos and his attitude to U.S. bases exemplifies the complexity of the man even as a political figure.

In the 1992 elections, Estrada first wanted to contest for President, but was then persuaded to fight for the post of Vice-President as Eduardo Cojuangco's running mate. Since the votes are given separately, Estrada won even as Cojuangco lost to Fidel Ramos. But the post of Vice-President is essentially ceremonial, with no real powers. Ramos did make Estrada the head of a Presidential Commission against crime, but curbed his powers when it appeared he might became a shade too successful. From then on, it was inevitable that Estrada would make a bid for the top job the next time around.

THE presidential elections revealed more than just the electorate's disgust with the previous regime's policies. They also showed how the people of the Philippines - much like people across Asia today - were longing for a charismatic hero on whom to pin their hopes. The Estrada campaign managed to capture the popular imagination, with the slogan "Erap para sa mahirap" (Erap for the poor) as a sharp contrast to the growth strategy of the Ramos administration, which was widely seen to have further aggrandised the elites rather than the masses. And the man himself was built up as a larger-than-life figure, with even his faults achieving mythical proportions. Thus, the popular hero is said to be a hard drinker, a womaniser (with at least five mistresses still maintained and apparently satisfied), a confident non-intellectual who makes no bones about his lack of education, a tough talker who prefers real action and is willing to fight anyone to get what he wants, along with being deep down a sentimental man whose heart bleeds for the poor and oppressed. Add to that a very real charisma, which seems to affect most people who have come into contact with him, and you have a leader of a kind that had seemed to have disappeared from the world stage.

The contradictions of his personality, and the sheer personal power he now exudes in Philippine politics, are likely to make his presidency both exciting and unpredictable. At the same time, the tremendously high expectations generated by his landslide victory and his own claims of what he intends to achieve may be difficult to fulfil. The first, unnecessary battle that Estrada took on even before he assumed office related to the burial of Ferdinand Marcos. Estrada ordered that the former dictator be given a hero's burial in the Libingan Cemetery, as long demanded by the Marcos family. Public outcry over this finally forced a temporary retraction from Imelda Marcos, who agreed to "postpone" the burial, possibly under some pressure from Estrada himself. The episode revealed both Estrada's stubborn conviction that he could go against the tide if he so desired, and his later acceptance of the popular will - and this is likely to be a continuing tussle.

Demonstrators march towards the presidential palace in Manila on June 26 protest against the planned burial of the remains of Ferdinand Marcos at the Heroes Cemetery in suburban Manila.-BULLIT MARQUEZ / AP

Some of this was evident even in his inaugural speech as President. It was the first to be delivered mainly in Filipino rather than in English, a conscious step to show Erap's identification with the mass and not the elite. And it was full of tough talk, almost like a script from one of his more rousing movies. Much of it was devoted to his proposed attack on crime: "low crimes in the street, by rich and poor alike, high crimes on (the elite) avenues... We know that the major crimes in this country are committed by hoodlums in uniforms. We know that they are protected by hoodlums in suits and acquitted by hoodlums in robes. We know that the most damaging crimes against society are not those of petty thieves in rags, but those of economic saboteurs in business suits. The dishonest stockbrokers, the wheeling-dealing businessmen, the influence peddlers and other crooks in government." Estrada claimed that in this fight against crime, "nobody, nobody, nobody can clip my powers."

The speech also restated Estrada's concern for the poor, and argued that "progress must not be measured by the number of golf courses of the rich." But it is precisely in the realm of economic strategy, rather than only vis-a-vis crime, that he is likely to be really tested. Those who know Estrada say that he is guided by an intuition that does grasp what people want, and that he is capable of fighting to achieve it. But his economic team is largely made up of those who would emphasise continuity with the previous Ramos administration, despite the presence of a couple of known Left supporters in less important posts. And his close ties with businessmen like Danding Cojuangco and Lucio Tan, who are under investigation for murky business deals and tax evasion, does not give rise to much complacency.

Under the presidential system, Estrada does enjoy very great powers. At the start, he has control of several thousand government appointments, most of them in critical areas for business and people. Some of his first moves as President have already been criticised by progressive groups as giving too much power to Cojuangco and similar characters with dubious records, as well as replacing those who had opposed them earlier. Meanwhile, the ten-point programme declared by the Government is full of generally good intentions, but it also contains points of concern and too little about how the "pro-poor" policy shift is to be realised.

It appears that the ordinary citizens of the Philippines must do more than just elect a President who can speak so effectively in their name: they must continue to be vigilant and exercise pressure to ensure that his actions also are in their interest.

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