The Marcos Cronies Are Back on Top

Article excerpt

The Philippines poor thought they had a friend for president. Wrong, finds John Elliot

It used to take several years for unpopular and self-serving political dictators, such as former presidents Suharto of Indonesia and Marcos of the Philippines, to see the writing of their demise on the wall. The Internet is changing all that, as Philippines president Joseph "Erap" Estrada has recently discovered.

On 22 November, a Texas-based political-risk consultancy called Stratfor put an article on its website headed "Philippines president's days are numbered". In Manila, the capital, it immediately sparked rumours of an imminent military coup, and people thought the moment had come the following month when the city was hit by a four-hour blackout -- caused, it turned out, not by the military, but by jelly fish that had got into the power station water intakes.

Notwithstanding, Estrada recognises that his presidency -- though less than two years old -- is under threat. The former film star was elected in 1998 with the biggest mandate ever given to a Filipino president. He won huge support from the poor, who hoped he would serve them better than his presidential predecessors, Ferdinand Marcos (thrown out of power in 1986), Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos.

But Estrada, a former Marcos crony, has failed the poor. At the same time he has also failed to win over the Manila elite, who regard him as ajoker and an upstart. Only last March, his net satisfaction rating (the percentage polling "satisfied" minus those "dissatisfied") was as high as +67; even last October it was +28. This month, it is down to +5. "The people brought President Estrada to power -- particularly the poor who make up over 90 per cent of the population -- and now they are correcting their mistake," says General Jose Almonte, a veteran public servant who was national security adviser to Ramos.

He dismisses the chances of a military coup, but thinks that Estrada could be ousted by a mass movement like the "people power" revolution that brought down Marcos, or by the Congress declaring, after elections in 2001, that he is "unfit for office".

Estrada has failed on two fronts. First, he has not introduced promised pro-poor policies or urgently needed economic reforms. The Philippines is lagging seriously behind neighbouring countries that have bounced back from the Asian financial crisis; its economy is growing at only about 3.5 per cent a year, which is low by current regional standards. Three big aid donors -- the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japanese government -- warned last month that they might suspend donations if reforms are not implemented to tackle poverty, boost tax receipts and reverse a growing budget deficit.

But Estrada has also failed on the personal level. He has several "wives" and many illegitimate children; he is a compulsive gambler who frequents casinos; he constantly changes his decisions; and he often seems to be trying to re-enact his old film-star roles, instead of governing the country. …