Sat, 01 Apr 2000

Estrada tries to save administration

By David Thurber

MANILA, Philippines (AP): For a president dedicated to helping impoverished Filipinos, a nun's accusation that President Joseph Estrada's family diverted US$10.5 million from a fund for financing health care has been explosive.

Sister Christine Tan made the allegations earlier this month, saying Estrada's family took money from a government lottery and used it for their own projects.

Tan, who says she was dropped from the lottery board after she objected, does not allege the money enriched the Estradas. Most reportedly went to charitable programs, such as a health project led by the first lady and about 200 ambulances distributed by Estrada's oldest son, a town mayor.

But critics say the projects were designed to promote the family's political interests. The ambulances, for example, bear the name of Estrada's son Jinggoy, who is expected to run for Congress.

The resulting uproar -- which prompted Estrada to proclaim on radio that "there are no thieves in my family" -- is the latest in a series of controversies pummeling his 21-month presidency.

Disappointment over Estrada's performance has caused his approval rating to plummet from 78 percent last June to 31 percent last month, according to Social Weather Stations, a private pollster.

Even among the poor, Estrada's most devoted fans during his previous years as a B-movie action star, the foibles that once humanized him -- drinking, devotion to dubious friends and a common-guy image -- are beginning to lose their appeal.

The country, which three years ago was on the verge of becoming an Asian economic "tiger," appears to be losing direction. And Estrada is widely accused of favoring rich friends and campaign contributors -- a view he strongly disputes.

"For the poor Filipinos I work with everyday, life under Estrada's administration is returning to what it was like 20 years ago -- with daily worries about food, work and safety," said the Rev. Toru Nishimoto, a Japanese priest who has worked in the Philippines for nearly 30 years.

It's a dramatic reversal for the country, which suffered less than many of its neighbors in Asia's financial crisis, mainly because of reforms instituted by Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos.

As other Asian countries have rebounded, Philippine economic growth hasn't kept pace, once again putting the country in danger of being left behind.

Analysts say Estrada deserves much of the blame.

"There are political doubts, a lack of confidence in the president," said Hugh Young, managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management Asia Ltd. in Singapore. "It's very disappointing because the Philippines has a lot of potential."

Last month, the government's top securities regulator, Perfecto Yasay, accused Estrada of seeking to have a friend cleared in a stock price-rigging scandal. Estrada denied the allegations, which contributed to a 22 percent plunge on Manila's stock exchange since January.

Unlike the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused of stealing billions of dollars while in office, few believe Estrada has been lining his pockets, and most think he sincerely wants to help the poor.

But his government has yet to outline a plan for doing so. Aides say the president often makes decisions on instinct and is not a hands-on manager, making the chain of command often unclear.

"Being president is much more difficult than I expected," Estrada said in an interview, adding that he counts the days until the end of his six-year term "like a prisoner."

He has begun taking sleeping pills, he said, and has recently switched from his favorite Johnnie Walker scotch to red wine and cut back on late-night drinking.

Estrada blames lack of resources, not poor management, for his government's failure to deliver. He says his declining popularity is the result of a conspiracy to discredit him by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church as well as leftist groups and a few anti- government newspapers.

Others around Estrada, however, say the administration desperately needs to reform.

Last week, Estrada fired one of his government's most vocal reform advocates, Aprodicio Laquian, after Laquian joked to reporters about the president's drinking.

In a farewell statement, Laquian advised the president to refrain from granting favors to rich friends who contributed to his 1998 campaign when the traditional Philippine elite refused to support him.

"It is now time to focus the government's attention to delivering benefits to the poor," Laquian said.

Despite the setbacks, Estrada said he is still optimistic his administration can succeed.

"My only consolation is that I was a movie actor," he said. "In the movies, the leading actor is losing for most of the time, but at the end of the movie he's the winner."