Acting Leader

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ex-film star Joseph Estrada's backslapping style served him well as a small-town mayor but can't help him solve the Philippines' abundant woes

It is Joseph Estrada's birthday, April 19, and he is visiting Taytay, a slum-redevelopment area north of Manila. In a dusty square beside a half-finished housing project, the Philippine President sits down with cabinet ministers and several local inhabitants to plates of rice and roast pig. As they eat, an old man in tattered clothes is ushered through the crowd. The President recognizes the man, who had been a security guard in San Juan 15 years ago, when Estrada was the town's mayor. Master of the common touch, Estrada converses warmly for several minutes. As the man turns to go, the President pulls out his wallet and discreetly slips his old buddy a few bills.

Go back one month. Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine Stock Exchange Commissioner, goes public with allegations that Estrada asked him repeatedly to block an investigation into Dante Tan, a gambling magnate accused of share-price manipulation. Tan is also a buddy of Estrada's. Yasay is talking about the scandal on Debate, a late-night TV show, when the switchboard gets an unusual call. It is from Malaca�ang, the presidential palace, and the guy who lives there wants to go on air. The engineer patches him through, and Estrada launches into a tirade against Yasay, the man who threatens to ruin his friend. You're such a liar, the President rants. He accuses Yasay of seeking a 1 million peso ($24,000) bribe and calls on the heavens to blast him with lightning.

Estrada likes to keep things personal. It is both part of his charm and his greatest failing, an endearing trait of an aging actor but a screaming liability in a man entrusted with the fate of 76 million Filipinos. The President has vowed to change--since January he has overhauled his administration to give more responsibility for policy to technocrat advisers. But that runs against his own instincts. In a country where kinship ties far outweigh institutional loyalty, Estrada still seems to see himself in the role of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, looking after his friends and making his enemies offers they can't refuse. In Estrada's eyes, there appears to be little difference between giving a security guard a couple hundred pesos and helping a billionaire business associate out of a fix. When Estrada had lunch recently with the American Chamber of Commerce, the topic turned to finding land for a new international-school campus. The President whipped out his mobile phone, spoke to his Education Secretary, then handed the phone to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard, saying: Here, you explain it to him. The code of loyalty is reflected even in his nickname, Erap, which is the reverse spelling of pare, Filipino slang for buddy. He is a very good friend, to a fault, says Nelson Navarro, a Manila newspaper columnist. Being a good friend, he can't say no.

And that, of course, is the problem. As the future brightens for the rest of Asia, the Philippines continues to limp from one crisis to the next--from today's renewed warfare and hostage drama in the south, to the near closure of the stock exchange in March to a series of scandals involving cronies of the President that sap investor confidence. Each problem cries out for delicate, reasoned management. Instead the fate of the nation depends on Estrada getting on his mobile phone, often in the early hours of the morning, to persuade a friend to call a colleague to help out a buddy. The result: confusion and inertia. In the space of three weeks, Estrada has appointed three different negotiators to free the 21 hostages kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort and held on the southern island of Jolo. Not surprisingly, the government still hasn't received a list of the hostage-takers' demands.

The most serious problem of Estrada's administration is the President's indebtedness to a cabal of businessmen, many of them ethnic Chinese, who are regarded with increasing xenophobia by Manila's self-styled Hispanic �lite. These corporate climbers donated huge sums to Estrada's 1998 election campaign. The President probably didn't need all their money: he easily beat the nine other candidates with 40% of the vote, compared with just 13% for his closest rival, Jose de Venecia. But it gave the cronies a seat at the table--or at the bar, in the legendary late-night drinking sessions that got Aprodicio Laquian fired in March when the then-chief of staff said he was often the only person sober in the room at four o'clock in the morning. The perception that a carousing Estrada has been handing out favors--like calling off a tax investigation into Philippine Airlines head Lucio Tan, or making Mark Jimenez, a fugitive from U.S. justice, presidential adviser on Latin America--has done more damage to the presidency than any of Estrada's other gaffes. It took him a year and a half to realize that he was President for all, not just for his friends, says opposition Senator Raul Roco.

Ever since the days of strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines has been struggling to develop the rule of law and governmental institutions that are not subject to the whim of one man. There is no sign that Estrada is stealing from the public purse as Marcos did. But the President's personalized form of government and indebtedness to friends is unerringly pulling the Philippines back into its bad old patron-client habits. Meanwhile, society isn't progressing. One third of the population is below the official poverty line, the annual birth rate averages a whopping 2.3% and the country's economic growth, forecast by the Asian Development Bank at 3.8% this year, will put the Philippines close to the bottom in Asia. The country is barely keeping its head above water.

The rhetoric is good: Estrada and all the members of the Economic Coordinating Council he created this year say that fighting poverty is the administration's top priority. But implementation is something else. We are a country in love with elocution lessons, says former presidential spokesman Jerry Barican. If you could only build the country with words, we would be No. 1 in Asia. Estrada's genuine concern for the poor is hampered by a lack of comprehensive policymaking and the interference of local officials keen to cash in on the anti-poverty bandwagon. On a recent presidential inspection trip to Mindoro Oriental province, the governor, Rodolfo G. Valencia, has the helicopter fly low to show off two Erap bridges and an Erap highway put up in advance of the visit. But even as the chopper banks sharply around the new concrete structures, the governor hands the President an inflated budget request for the following year. It's almost double what he will get, says Agriculture Secretary Ed Angara, also on the helicopter. We know how much each province really deserves.

Such is the daily routine in the presidential palace for the Chief Executive of the Philippines, besieged by requests from cronies, sycophants, friends, foreign embassies, competing branches of government--and the 5,000 members of the Association of Erap's Godchildren, whose ranks have been swelling from the days when he first rose to prominence as a movie star in the 1960s. Some people call Malaca�ang a snake pit, says Barican. That is an insult to the snake.

Born in 1937 as the eighth of 10 children in a relatively well-off family, Estrada grew up in the Manila suburb of San Juan. The black sheep of the family, he played with the poorer kids of the neighborhood, drifted out of college and finally became a movie actor. His macho style and self-deprecating humor led him to star in 80 films and earned him five Famas, the local equivalent of Oscars. In 1969 he was elected mayor of San Juan, where he became hugely popular for paving roads and cleaning up crime. He rode to the presidency in 1998 on an image of being the poor man's savior.

Immediately after the election, Estrada enjoyed high popularity ratings. He burnished his reputation internationally by speaking out strongly against the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and by meeting with Anwar's wife on a visit to Kuala Lumpur--something no other asean leader dared to do. He also bucked asean's don't see, don't tell policy on Burma by denouncing that country's military junta. But in the middle of last year, mounting allegations of cronyism and a badly managed attempt to change the constitution to attract more foreign investment led to a sharp drop in his ratings. For a movie actor used to the adoration of his fans, it was a huge blow and prompted a panicky overhaul of his administration in January.

In person, Estrada likes to play the lovable rogue, as if he were still on the film sets of four decades ago. A warm host, he seems to enjoy nothing better than to sit around over a meal trading jokes--often bawdy--with a deadpan expression and a Lucky Strike clamped between his teeth. When he reaches a punchline, he flashes his trademark leer, then laughs uproariously. His favorite movie is Gone with the Wind (seen it 10 times--great plot), and he says he molded himself on actors like Steve McQueen, Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck. But his favorite model of all is actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan. When he made governor, I thought I could get into politics--and so I became mayor of San Juan, says Estrada. Then when he became President, I thought--I can do that too. Though he doesn't share Reagan's conservative ideological leanings, Estrada mimics his style of governance, eschewing long cabinet sessions, briefing charts and the other details of administration. Estrada's instinct is to project his personality to the masses, and he clearly enjoys speaking to a crowd: I know how to make them laugh--and when to make them cry.

Erap is game--he is fun to be with. He is very showbiz, says Baby Arenas, a Manila socialite and close friend of Fidel Ramos, Estrada's predecessor in Malaca�ang. At a recent wedding, Arenas found herself seated next to Estrada. During the service he leaned over and whispered to her, I know where you used to go with Ramos in Malaca�ang. Arenas tried to protest, but Estrada insisted with one of his leering grins: I checked out the room for myself.

Estrada's extramarital affairs are well-known--he makes no attempt to hide them, admitting to 12 children born out of wedlock, on top of the three he has had with his wife, Luisa. During a visit to Cebu in April, Estrada owned up cheerfully to another of his children, born to a movie starlet. At a public rally he pointed to a teenage girl in the crowd and asked, to the cheers of the audience, Doesn't she look like me?

No longer young at 63, Estrada walks heavily, rolling his shoulders like an old boxer. He has arthritic knees, although he likes to say that above the knees, everything works. Since his makeover in January, he says, he has stopped drinking the old reliable--Johnny Walker Blue Label--and now imbibes only red wine, on the grounds that it is better for the health.

But Estrada's bitterest critics in Manila's high society have made up their mind about him, and they are in no mood to give him a second chance. They regard his common touch as simple vulgarity and resent being shut out of the parties in Malaca�ang that they had grown used to attending under previous administrations. They have conducted an unrelenting campaign, spearheaded by the Philippine Inquirer, to defame the President. A Silent Protest Movement Against Erap has even been set up--its paradoxical strategy being noise barrages of cars honking horns in Manila's Makati business district. To the Establishment, Estrada is simply not one of them. In a society that reveres gold Rolexes and Cartier Tanks, Estrada doesn't even wear a watch--just a white sweatband with his crest on it. He jokes about his clunky English and his preference for the native Tagalog. And no meal at Malaca�ang is complete without the trademark lechon, roast fat pig that no restaurant in trendy Malate would even dream of putting on the menu.

And then there are the Erap jokes--like the jigsaw puzzle he reputedly finished in six months, and proudly told his friends it says 3-4 years on the box. Thousands of such jokes circulate around Manila, and Estrada himself has his own store--most of them unprintable. Part of his charm is his self-effacing humor--he once told former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan that he didn't mind the jokes at all: They are good for brand recognition.

Despite his warm personality and good intentions, Estrada retains the style of a small-town mayor who tries to get things done by tapping his buddies. The longer reach and policy grasp required of a president still escape him. Since January he has tried to distance himself from what aides call his more unsavory friends. He has begun to make some progress in economic liberalization, pushing the privatization of the electric power industry and initiating some reform in securities regulation. But many of his policies are ad hoc, like the inept negotiations with the Muslim Moros that have restarted the war in the south. Lacking a coherent vision, many of his ideas are likely to end up like unused footage from one of his movies on the cutting-room floor.

To boost his ratings, Estrada has taken to the road with his message of poverty reduction, population control and economic development. After flying down to the island of Mindoro last month, he tells a group of farmers in Calapan that, with 2.3% population growth, the Philippines will always stay poor. Men, control your sex drives, he says, bringing roars of laughter from the crowd. The fact that his own child-making prowess is already well into double digits doesn't seem to faze him.

In San Jose, on the other side of Mindoro, he makes a speech about how the Philippines has fallen behind the rest of Asia economically. In the 1950s we were second only to Japan in terms of economic growth, he says, Now we are 10th. Although he has ordered officials to lift 10 million people out of poverty by the end of his term in 2004, he announces no concrete plan for how to achieve this, in Mindoro or anywhere else.

In the helicopter on the way back to Manila, he ruminates about whether anyone can fix the country. There is too much politics in the Philippines, everyone arguing with everyone else, Estrada says. We need to be more disciplined. Then he falls asleep. The helicopter, flown by Philippine air force men, lands at Malaca�ang just as the sun is setting. Before getting out, the President and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces gets out his wallet and tips an embarrassed pilot a 1,000-peso bill. The man is incorrigible.

With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Cebu and Nelly Sindayen/Manila