Wed, 18 Oct 2000

Estrada still does not get the message

MANILA: President Estrada still doesn't get it. Or he is acting like he doesn't. Charged by an old-time friend and political ally with personally accepting more than P400 million from illegal gambling and pocketing P70 million from the excise taxes on tobacco, Estrada first kept quiet for days, then made a blanket denial and finally announced that the government was getting out of gambling altogether. He has been trying to sidestep the core issues of corruption and cronyism in his administration, and the tactic has backfired.

The long days of silence only tended to reinforce the growing public consensus that his accuser, Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson, was telling the truth. Such a display of uncustomary patience, if it was meant to look like that, contrasted sharply with Estrada's swift and angry response to the old Manila Times story that he had stood as an "unwitting godfather" to a shady transaction. Thus, when he finally chose to speak, Estrada could do little to make people believe him more than Singson.

In his first public statement on the jueteng controversy Estrada said he never accepted a single centavo from jueteng and asked the public not to hurry to declare him guilty.

Obviously referring to Jaime Cardinal Sin's call for him to relinquish his high office, Estrada rejected the demand as "unfair" and "hasty." He dismissed Singson's charges as "a politically motivated hatchet job."

On the same day, he told a business conference that the government was standing by its policy decision "to flush out an illegal gambling operation" (meaning jueteng) by putting up bingo 2-ball, the game that caused a bitter dispute between Singson and Charlie "Atong" Ang, the administration's handpicked coordinator of the new numbers game.

Two days later, in an unmistakable sign of the confusion and panic that seem to have gripped Malacaqang since Singson exploded his charges, the President announced that the government was getting out of gambling completely. "The message is clear," he said, "the people do not want the government to stand as the dealer in gambling."

Right reading, wrong message. There is certainly a strong opposition to gambling, or more precisely, the government's active promotion of gambling in various forms, including jai alai, on-line bingo and bingo 2-ball.

But gambling, whether legal or illegal, and the spread of a culture of gambling are only incidental issues now. The main issues brought out by the Singson exposi, it must be repeated, are corruption and cronyism.

And beyond that, the question being raised is, as Sin put it, whether the President has the "moral ascendancy" to continue governing the nation.

Estrada cannot expect the Catholic bishops who have joined Sin in demanding his resignation to turn around and say he should stay in office because he has ordered that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. be privatized. He must show them and everyone else that his hands are clean on the jueteng issue.

Until Estrada gives a credible refutation of Singson's charges, everything that the administration does will be nothing but an unwelcome and infuriating distraction.

They can only boomerang on the President, like the senators' threat to discipline Senate Majority Leader Teofisto Guingona, the congressmen's attempt to gag Singson, Malacaqang's belated disclosure of his financial shenanigans or its favorite theory about the elite and the opposition plotting endlessly to bring Estrada down.

Theories such as the one about the opposition pressuring Singson to expose Estrada are a no-brainer. Singson did not get to where he is today by bowing to pressure from groups that have little power and meager resources. Neither has he been known for tangling foolishly with the powers that be, especially someone so close as to be his drinking buddy, mahjong crony and possibly partner in felony.

-- The Philippine Daily Inquirer / Asia News Network