The reign of Philippines President Joseph Estrada came to an abrupt end on January 20, when he vacated the presidential palace after being deserted by his key aides and under threat of physical eviction by hundreds of thousands of protesters. Even before his actual departure, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the vice president, was sworn in as his successor. The final crisis of the scandal-plagued presidency had been precipitated a few days earlier, when a majority of the senators acting as jurors in his impeachment trial voted to suppress evidence that Estrada kept billions of pesos in several secret bank accounts. The action triggered what many now call “People Power II,” after the popular uprising that ousted the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
For more than a month before his sudden exit, the impeachment trial of Estrada had transfixed this country of more than 70 million people. He was accused of bribery and corruption, the chief charge being that he had orchestrated a massive nationwide operation to siphon off to himself, his family and his cronies the proceeds of a popular illegal numbers game called jueteng.
Estrada’s bête noire was Luis “Chavit” Singson, a provincial governor and former sidekick who said he was assigned by Estrada to be the point man for collecting proceeds from jueteng, which rakes in billions of pesos yearly from lower-class Filipinos. What caused Singson to break with Estrada was his being cut out of the gambling take. An appeal to Estrada did not work, leading Singson to threaten that he would go public about his role. After he managed to foil what he claims was an attempt to assassinate him, Singson, realizing that he had to go for broke, put himself under the protection of Jaime Cardinal Sin and contacted the press. The country has not been the same since.
The impeachment trial was the nadir of a presidency that had very auspicious beginnings. Estrada, popularly known as “Erap,” swept the May 1998 elections with the largest plurality ever in presidential contests, riding on the slogan Erap para sa mahirap (“Erap’s for the poor”) and capitalizing on his image as an action star portraying Robin Hood characters in Manila’s mean streets. A man whose experience in administration was largely limited to serving as mayor of a small city, the ex-actor benefited from deep discontent with the performance of the two previous presidents, who had succeeded in squandering the promise of the 1986 “People Power Revolution” that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship. As a result of making repayment of foreign debt the national priority, slavishly implementing IMF-dictated structural-adjustment policies and failing to follow through on land reform, Corazon Aquino ended her term in 1992 with 47 percent of Filipinos living in poverty–about the same proportion as in 1965, when Marcos became president. Her successor, Fidel Ramos, put poverty alleviation and social reform behind neoliberal restructuring of the economy. An inflow of $19.4 billion in foreign investment between 1993 and 1997 triggered a boom that turned into a rout when, following the collapse of the Thai baht in July 1997, speculative investors in Manila, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, rushed for the exits and brought the economy down in the process [see Bello, “The End of the Asian Miracle,” January 12/19, 1998].
Estrada’s victory in 1998 was a veritable cri de coeur from the vast lower classes. He assembled around him a diverse cast of characters that included former backers of Marcos, former opponents of Marcos, well-known businessmen, figures from the left, arrivistes and interesting, if not sinister, people. The line between the legitimate world and the underworld became blurred. His cronies included Mark Jimenez, a Filipino-American businessman wanted by the US Justice Department in connection with illegal campaign donations to the Democratic Party. Also prominent in the presidential retinue were magnates and magnates-on-the-make from the increasingly economically powerful Filipino-Chinese community who were not reticent about bankrolling Estrada’s campaign or the favors they expected in return.