For a life sentence, it was surprisingly brief. Only six weeks after being convicted of plundering an estimated $15 million from public coffers during his two-year reign, deposed former President of the Philippines Joseph Estrada today walked out of the posh estate where he has been under house arrest, pardoned by the woman who replaced him, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. "There is no substitute for freedom," Estrada told reporters upon his release.
Arroyo painted the pardon, announced Thursday evening, as both an act of mercy and an attempt to bridge the country's deep political fissures. Speaking to a business conference in Manila, she called Estrada's trial and imprisonment "a cause of distraction, recrimination and intrigue." Pardoning Estrada, she added, will promote national reconciliation.
An Arroyo administration spokesman yesterday noted that Estrada, 70, has already been under house arrest for more than six years since being overthrown in the mass protests movement dubbed People Power II. Estrada had also asked to spend time with his gravely ill mother. And, the spokesman noted, a court decision requiring Estrada to forfeit his ill-gotten gains remains in effect.
Many Filipinos impute less altruistic motives. Estrada, a former B-list movie actor, remains hugely influential among average Filipinos particularly compared to Arroyo. Indeed, a recent survey found that Estrada remains much more popular and more credible than the current President. Before the pardon, Estrada refused to accept the legitimacy of the Arroyo government. Letting him off, critics say, may be a way of muting his criticism and defusing the resentment of his followers. (As part of his deal with the administration, Estrada has promised not to run for office.)
Arroyo certainly doesn't need any more critics. Already accused of vote-rigging during her 2004 election a charge she denies Arroyo and her administration have recently been shaken by more scandals. Benjamin Abalos, head of the Philippines' election commission and Arroyo's political ally, resigned Oct. 1 over accusations that he was involved in a telecom deal with a Chinese company that allegedly doled out nearly $200 million in kickbacks. (Abalos denies the allegations and has vowed to take legal action against his accusers.) And on Oct. 11, lawmakers were allegedly handed paper bags full of money during meetings at the presidential palace, according to two provincial politicians who said they'd taken the cash. Arroyo's political opponents have charged the payouts were bribes intended to buy legislators' loyalty in pending impeachment proceedings, although the League of Provinces of the Philippines insists the money was for "capacity building." The President is facing increasing calls for her resignation, and even rumors of another attempted coup like those in 2003 and 2006.
To Arroyo's critics, the timing of the pardon is suspect. The day before it was announced, a whistle-blower testifying in the Senate about the telecom deal alleged that her husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, was supposed to get $70 million in kickbacks from the now-canceled contract. (He has denied it). For Arroyo, this is an opportune time to change the subject.
Yet however politically expedient and however popular with the masses, the decision to pardon Estrada in a nation struggling with endemic corruption strikes many here as deeply cynical. "Of course we'd rather see him in jail," says Alberto Lim, director of the influential Makati Business Council. "They say there's no big fish caught in this country. He was the big fish we caught."