Presidents of our life: Some reminiscences


3rd installment
Joseph ‘Erap’ Ejercito Estrada
THERE was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Vice Preside Joseph Estrada was going to run for president. His popularity was at its highest, this time as a real (not reel) crime-buster, thanks to President Ramos’ clever idea of appointing him as one (“anti-graft czar”) unlike a Macapagal of years past who as a “jobless spare time” had unlimited time to campaign during his term.

For his running mate, Estrada chose lawyer-turned-politician Sen. Edgardo Angara. As to who Ramos was going to “anoint” to run against Erap was up in the air. Without any doubt many political observers thought that Gen. Renato de Villa, who was perceived to be the president’s closest ally – a “Ramos clone” as some opinion makers said – would be it. De Villa being a military man himself from day one had made known his ambition to be Ramos’ successor. But just as motivated was Speaker Jose de Venecia, a smarter and a more astute politician; his plus factor was that he was Ramos’ kabaleyan (kababayan) and kumpare. As to who Ramos was going to choose as his candidate became a guessing game, many betting on de Villa who had already trumpeted his “sure anointment.” The “Teflon President” just displayed his famous ambivalent smile. Joe de V, as he was fondly called, like a silent beast in the bush ready for the kill, one day emerged from Malacañang after a long meeting with his kabaleyan president, and with a grave expression on his face before a large group of anxious media people said nothing. That same day FVR dropped the bomb: “My choice is Speaker Joe de Venecia!” How Joe did it was “a coup,” as one pundit

Said. And up to the present many politically inclined people are still speculating.

Nine political titans joined the presidential melee in that election (1998) — everyone thinking they could beat Erap. After “blessed Joe,” were Bicoland’s oragon Raul Roco, Ramos’ unsuccessful VP Lito Osmeña, Manila’s “Dirty Harry” Alfredo Lim, the forsaken Rene de Villa, Edsa hero Johnny Ponce Enrile, the “lady with balls” Miriam Defensor Santiago, the incorruptible Manoling Morato and Santiago Dumlao.

That presidential derby was perhaps the most interesting and unforgettable in Philippine political history — a battle royale of money, power, intellectual brilliance, political acumen, popularity and reputation — perhaps nothing like it can be seen again in a long time. Not a few people were dumfounded with such unlikely combination of protagonists — all veteran politicians but unbelievably naive to think that Erap was not that invincible. Although popular, he lacked educational attainment and was considered a former “grade B” senator and a “so so” vice president. (A voter said: “Ang matalinong presidente ay maraming alam kung papaano paiikutin ang bayan; tingnan ninyo ang nangyari nuong panahon ni Marcos.”)

Many people knew Erap’s political batting average was impeccable — from the small but historic town of San Juan, Rizal as mayor, then as senator and later as vice president. (If we may we be excused to look back and relate: This writer was honored to have been requested personally by aspirant Joseph Ejercito Estrada to proclaim him [sadly, now forgotten] as independent candidate for mayor of San Juan in 1967; we also granted him permission to use our “Kilusan Ng Bagong Filipino” party as his own — our original party when we ran, also as an independent candidate, for congressman of the 1st District of Rizal in 1965.)

The underrated and “mediocre grade-B senator” whose only “bill of national significance” was his “carabao bill,” setting up a “Carabao Center” in Nueva Ecija, won against the moneyed and intellectual candidates, proving that his campaign battle cry “Erap para sa mga mahihirap at masa para kay Erap” was politically sound and more effective. His vice-presidential candidate, Angara, however, lost to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), de Venecia’s VP candidate.

The Erap presidency was brief to the consternation of the people who believed in his honesty and dedication. Public perception at the outset of his public life was positive — that Joseph Ejercito Estrada was not corrupt; never at any time in his public life had he attempted to amass wealth through foul means.

As with most popular leaders in history, Erap however, had fallen into the “pit of pride and prejudice” in his actuations toward his friends and allies. “The evil that men do” includes egotistical maneuvers or selfishness due to newly earned power and success; history tells us that popular leaders do not wish to share power and glory with anyone. In Erap’s case, he did not want a co-star in his “flick,” to make it a “blockbuster;” along the way. Sadly, his innate goodness toward his true friends was shrouded by such fancy. Instead of dispensing simple favors to proven loyal friends, he gave favors to people of questionable character who promised him a big share of whatever these people “with presidential connectiosn” could get from illegal sources — gambling, for example. (Who was it who said: “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.”) This indiscretion drove his own friends to tell on him in public, even exposing other “secrets,” such as huge “bank accounts under fictitious names.”

It defies reason when general esteem suddenly turns to displeasure. In one sweep, Erap’s following mysteriously vanished and Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the new “flavor of the month.” In the midst of this controversy, Erap was visibly oblivious of what was brewing as an orchestrated denouement of his lapse into recklessness, and understandably so, Gloria took advantage of the situation.

The masa para kay Erap was nowhere and “anti Erap forces” suddenly grew by leaps and bounds on the ground and with Gloria’s political acumen, created and innovated “EDSA Dos.” Meanwhile, his “traitor friends” whom he appointed to top positions abandoned him in his sinking ship and joined a euphoric GMA at the EDSA shrine to shout with an overflowing mob, “Down with Erap! Alis dyan!” His true friends whom he had ignored before surely must have commiserated with him, but surely laughed silently. President Estrada ended up being impeached and arrested to suffer ignominy under house arrest for several years — pardoned later, wizened but wiser and charming as ever to remain in the political milieu as mayor of Manila.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
If the Erap government was brief, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s (GMA) was the longest. She took over an impeached president’s unfinished term (which was more than two years), ran for “reelection”’(which legally was considered her first term) and won amid allegations of election “fraud and Comelec irregularities.” Some legal luminaries tried to question such attendant condition with the opinion that such candidacy may be illegal because of the constitutional provision which prohibits reelection. President Arroyo won her case and served as the longest constitutional president in the country.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

Daughter of the late President Diosdado Macapagal who was considered honest and incorruptible, President GMA’s presidency was wracked by myriad controversies such as graft and corruption, selling favors, “the invasion of Chinese and Korean illegal migrant” who from then on have dominated the retail industry in the country, the ZTE scandal, the “Hello Garci” episode at the Commission On Elections to thwart a Fernando Poe Jr. victory, and many other “illegal transactions.” If Marcos had the “First Lady problem,” GMA had the “First Gentleman problem.” First Gentleman (husband) Miguel Arroyo who was perceived as the “most powerful man” when it came to dispensing government favors (contracts, they say) denied such accusations claiming innocence of all “those political innuendos.” President GMA despite numerous improprieties heaped on her has done what no presidents before has even thought about: an archipelagic public transport system over land and sea from Aparri to Jolo which she called “Ro-Ro” for “roll-on-roll-off,” conveying millions of passengers with speed and in comfort to and from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Without much fanfare, she revived the Pasig River Ferry to the delight of thousands of commuters in the Metro; she also increased the salaries of government employees and casual workers as a lasting tribute to her late father who loved the less fortunate. After almost nine years in power, checkered with controversies and countless charges of irregularities, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to Erap’s delight, was later arrested on charges of a non-bailable offense and other “scams” to suffer ignominy under “hospital detention” (being afflicted with a spinal malady) for some time, won her case and was freed — wizened and wiser, petite and cute as ever to remain in the political milieu as congresswoman of Lubao, Pampanga. (Can you hear Erap ’s silent glee, “Lintek lang ang walang ganti!”?)

(To be concluded next Monday)

Eddie Ilarde is a former senator, freelance writer and independent radio-tv host and producer. You may send him letters through PO Box 107 Makati City 1222.


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