Tue, 07 Nov 2000

The lights dim on Joeph Estrada's presidency

By Ruben Alabastro

MANILA (Reuters): The lights are dimming on the presidency of Joseph Estrada and analysts say nothing short of a miracle can forestall the end which may come in weeks.

A month to the day after a gambling payoffs scandal exploded in the president's face, analysts and businessmen say they believe talks are under way for the beleaguered former movie actor to make a graceful exit from Philippines politics.

"He is still the king of the jungle but you have a pack of wild dogs barking, biting and turning you around in circles, until your energies are sapped and you are totally vulnerable," Antonio Gatmaitan, president of the private think-tank Political and Economy Applied Research Foundation (PEAR) told Reuters.

"In the end, you fall or you are devoured."

A protest rally against Estrada on Saturday by tens of thousands of people could hasten the end of his 29-month-old presidency, the analysts said.

Estrada, vehemently denying he took millions of dollars in bribes from gambling syndicates running underground lotteries, countered the protest by distributing relief goods to crowds of supporters in a Manila suburb ravaged by a typhoon.

But his show of confidence only reinforced the image of a president barely hanging on by his teeth, the analysts said.

The church-organized rally climaxed a disastrous week for the president during which his majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate vanished almost overnight because of desertions from his ruling coalition.

The defections left him almost certain to be impeached and severely damaged his chances of surviving a trial in the Senate for alleged bribery and corruption.

Senior presidential economic advisers, including his Trade Secretary, also resigned, following in the wake of Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who quit the cabinet last month.

Arroyo is next in line of succession if Estrada goes.

"The end could come quite rapidly, fairly soon ... days, weeks, at the most a couple of months," a foreign businessman said.

"He can hang on and fight it all the way. Then he will have to go through the impeachment process and get humiliated in public. Even if he is exonerated, he ends up an ineffectual president," said the businessman, asking not to be identified.

Estrada has rejected calls for him to resign and said he will prove his innocence in any impeachment trial in Senate.

Initial committee hearings in the Lower House, which must endorse the charges before the case goes to the Senate for trial, start on Monday.

The scandal has wreaked havoc on the economy, stripping the peso of about 10 percent of its worth over the past month and pushing the currency down to a historic low of 51.95 to the dollar.

"The die is cast," said Raul Concepcion, chairman of the Federation of Philippine Industries, referring to the prospect of an Estrada resignation.

"I would say all of this would happen before Christmas ... The country cannot go through this agonizing process every day."

Concepcion said Estrada's only card was to come out with strong evidence that the charges were baseless. "There may still be a chance, but I doubt it," he said.

Concepcion and others said they believed a "Nixon solution" was in the works to end the crisis.

Engulfed by the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigned from the U.S. presidency in 1974 to avoid impeachment and escaped possible jail after his successor, Gerald Ford, granted a pardon.

"What is holding him is he is probably trying to make a deal (or see) if he can make a deal," analyst Teodoro Benigno said. "In my view, he will be out of office before Christmas."

PEAR's Gatmaitan said backroom talks on an exit scenario for Estrada -- where "he will not be left completely naked" -- had been going on for over a week involving people reputed to be close to the president.

Gatmaitan said Estrada could buy time by organizing the poor to take to the streets in his support.

"If it becomes a contest of who can mount a bigger rally, he can do that. He could call on the underclass. But a disorganized thing like that, without cadres, without political generals, is difficult to sustain."

Riding on his huge popularity as a former movie idol, Estrada seemed invincible when he took office in June 1998 to begin his six-year term.

"He looked impregnable and he was on top of the world. He had the masses in his hands who would forgive him for his sins ... It is a Shakespearean tragedy," analyst Benigno said.