Sat, 09 Dec 2000

Moment of truth for RP's Estrada

MANILA (Reuters): The moment of truth has arrived for Philippines President Joseph Estrada.

Just two and a half years after winning the largest majority in free Philippine presidential elections, the former movie star stands on the verge of either political annihilation or victory against almost impossible odds.

On Thursday, the country's 22-member Senate began an impeachment trial of Estrada on charges of corruption and bribery. If a two-thirds majority finds him guilty, Estrada will be ejected from office.

A verdict is likely by the end of January.

No other sitting head of state has been impeached before in Asia.

Estrada's political travails seem like a throwback to the film roles he played in the 1950s -- a feisty underdog who triumphed in the end after vanquishing all odds.

"It's just like in the movies," he said. "The hero gets beaten up in the beginning but still wins in the end."

Prone to controversy since he became the 13th president of the largely Roman Catholic country on June 30, 1998, Estrada ran into the worst crisis of his presidency in October when a former ally said he had handed the president over 400 million pesos (US$8 million) in bribes from illegal gambling syndicates.

The accuser, provincial governor Luis Singson, also said Estrada diverted some $3 million in excise funds for his own use.

The scandal has battered the already shaky economy, caused the peso to crash to all-time lows and ignited calls from church, business and other pressure groups for him to step down.

Estrada insists he is innocent and says the accusations have been fomented by an elite which has never accepted him as president. It was a recurring theme of his presidential campaign -- the lower-class underdog challenging and vanquishing the elite -- and has continued in his tenure.

Born Joseph Ejercito to a well-to-do Manila family on April 19, 1937, Estrada dropped out of school in his teens, was thrown out of the family home and chose his name from a telephone book.

He shot to movie stardom at 24 when he played the role of a fugitive from the law who fights for the oppressed.

Soon, everyone was calling him "Erap" -- for "pare" spelled backwards, meaning "pal" in the Tagalog language.

He entered politics in 1969 when he was elected mayor of Manila's San Juan town. He kept the post for 17 years, was elected senator in 1987 and in 1992, became vice-president.

But from the start, the Estrada presidency had been a rocky one.

The country's powerful Roman Catholic church has been mortified that a man who has owned up to womanizing, gambling, drinking binges and fathering several children out of wedlock should be elected president.

One newspaper said Estrada had fathered a total of 10 children by different women since his days as a film star. Estrada did not dispute the report.

He has been lampooned for his poor English -- one apocryphal tale has Estrada saying his mother is his favorite woman because she has supported him in his infancy, childhood, adolescence and adultery -- but has made capital out of the charge by a publishing a book of real and imaginary gaffes.

The drinking, gambling and corruption charges however have not gone away.

In March this year, Estrada sacked a newly appointed palace chief of staff after the aide suggested that policy decisions were made during midnight drinking bouts at the palace.

Aides say he drinks into the night and is invariably late for morning meetings, but has made efforts to correct this in recent months.

The impeachment trial will also investigate charges that Estrada tried to influence an insider trading probe into BW Resource Corp, a gaming firm whose shares jumped some 5,000 percent last year before crashing.

It will hear reports that several mothers of his children, many of whom he is said to be still involved with, own palatial mansions with no known income to account for the purchases.

Singson, his nemesis, has spoken of late night mahjong sessions with buddies at which millions of dollars have been won or lost, although Estrada did most of the winning.

But his candor in a nation which has been used to remote, upper-class leaders some of whom are uneasy speaking Tagalog, in addition to the bravura of his film roles, has served him well.

And, at 63, he retains the trademark quiff and easy charm, if not the figure, of his movie star days.

Asked about his health by reporters, he has been known to say that his knees sometimes give him trouble. "But above that, everything is okay," he says.

"His leadership style is exactly what this country needs," says presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno. "When he speaks to the poor people of this country, he does make a connection. If Manila thinks the president is history, then it is making a very, very big mistake."

His other achievements include beating down a Muslim rebel group in the south of the country and using a mixture of negotiations and military action to secure the release of more than 40 hostages kidnapped by another guerrilla group.

Estrada says he is confident of finishing his term.

"You know I am not a saint and I never said that I am a saint," he has told supporters.

"Like all human beings, I am not without faults but to raise the issue of my personal life and equate it with my capacity to govern is not only totally unfair but unjust. I submitted myself to the scrutiny of the Filipino people almost three years ago. And you chose to elect me as your president for six years."