Estrada's Arrest Poses a Challenge for Arroyo

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Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada

Despite his arrest on serious corruption charges, former Philippines president Joseph Estrada may yet elude prison — and not simply because of the merits or demerits of the case against him. Estrada, who was deposed in a constitutional coup in February and replaced by his vice president, Gloria Arroyo, was arrested Wednesday after police prevailed in scuffles with thousands of Estrada supporters gathered outside his home. Prosecutors allege that the former action-movie star, who campaigned for the presidency as a populist champion of the poor, had illegally amassed some $80 million during his presidency. The charge of economic plunder carries the death penalty, although it's unlikely that prosecutors will ask the court to execute a former head of state whose massive following may be inclined to believe his claim that he has been the victim of a conspiracy among the rich and powerful.

Estrada has previously been charged with lesser corruption offenses since his ouster, but the latest charges are by far the most serious. Because they preclude bail, he'll be forced to await trial in prison, away from the political base that remains loyal to him and hostile to the business, religious and political elites that ousted him. He may take some solace in that the special anti-corruption court that will hear his case has a poor record of convictions on graft charges; it failed to convict former president Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused of abuses far more serious than those ascribed to Estrada.

Estrada's case may be something of a test of the depth of Arroyo's drive against corruption. His arrest is clearly designed to send a sharp message that corruption will not be tolerated, and yet graft has been deeply embedded in the power structure of the Philippines for decades. Attacking it will demand not only firm action against politicians on the take, but also against the tycoons offering the bribes. The former president has warned that bringing him to court will allow "the truth to come out," a signal to some of the powerful business interests that had previously backed Estrada that a trial could damage their interests, too.

Arroyo was installed in the presidency amid popular acclaim after her support among political, business and religious leaders prompted the military to back her effort to oust Estrada earlier this year. But her new government faces its first test at the polls in Senate elections later this month. A number of Estrada supporters, including his wife, are running for election, and the outcome could be an important indicator of Arroyo's ability to usher in a period of political stability. And the ousted action-movie-hero-turned-president may remain a significant obstacle to such stability, even from behind bars.