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NOVEMBER 27, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21


Pat Roque/AP.
Protesters at a rally in Manila on Nov. 14 demand President Estrada's resignation.

Eye of the Storm
The impeachment of Philippine President Joseph Estrada threatens to plunge his country's fragile democracy into total pandemonium
By ANTHONY SPAETH

ALSO
Viewpoint

Let Asia's elected leaders finish their terms

History is not normally a speedy process in the Philippines, but last week witnessed a record of sorts. The Philippine House of Representatives convened to consider an impeachment motion against President Joseph Estrada. Assembled in a '70s-era complex far from downtown Manila, House Speaker Manuel Villar read a prayer, customary in the predominantly Catholic country, and then a report on the motion. With a bang of his gavel, Villar passed the motion without debate—and in the space of just three minutes, Estrada became the first President of the Philippines to be impeached.

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TRAVEL WATCH: Finding Peace in a Himalayan Hideaway

The move thrust the nation into the kind of chaotic political skimirshes that characterize Asia's wildest democracy. Estrada, accused of accepting $8 million in under-the-desk proceeds from an illegal gambling operation, responded by saying he would gladly face a trial in the Senate. "I did not become President to rake up money," said the former film actor, sounding almost Nixonian. Estrada's foes, meanwhile, gleefully promised a Senate trial that would exceed Bill Clinton's impeachment ordeal. Rumbles of a possible coup d'état, as customary in the Philippines as prayers, are growing louder, and there is talk of a tit-for-tat move to impeach the country's Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Meanwhile, insiders report that the President's 93-year-old mother has become involved in the controversy, begging her son to "reform his ways."

Which means that the Estrada imbroglio is generating ever-mounting BTUs of political heat but not a whole lot of light. Two weeks ago, the contest was centered on public support as measured by the number of Filipinos each side could bring onto Manila's streets. Estrada won that round by pulling about 1 million people to a support rally, compared with a maximum of 80,000 gathered by his opposition, led by former President Corazon Aquino, Catholic prelate Jaime Cardinal Sin and Manila's business Elite. Now, the struggle has moved to a Philippine upper house seemingly unequipped to handle such a task. Senators are still bickering over such elemental issues as how many votes are needed for conviction—a two-thirds vote is required, but there is confusion since one Senator died in office and another, Arroyo, has since become Vice President—and whether the judgment would be based on guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or simply a preponderance of guilt. The Senate will have to organize fast: the trial begins Dec. 4.

Estrada's spin doctors are in overdrive. When the House impeached Estrada on several counts of bribery, graft, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the constitution, deputy presidential press secretary Mike Toledo reacted as if the President had achieved his biggest triumph. "We have just seen democracy in action," Toledo exulted. "This development is most welcome and let us wait for the impeachment trial to begin." Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Ernesto Maceda was similarly upbeat: "I am quite sure you will see a new and reformed President if and when he is acquitted."

Estrada himself is suffering, however. He hit an emotional low two weeks ago and turned for consolation to Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, a political mentor, former Ferdinand Marcos crony and chairman of giant San Miguel Corp. According to a Malacañang source, Estrada, tears welling in his eyes, told Cojuangco he was pagod na, or tired, and seemed ready to give up the fight. Cojuangco told him to hang tough.

That might prove to be good advice: Estrada still appears to have enough support in the Senate to survive. The President needs the votes of at least eight of the 22 Senators. According to Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, the President can count on nine, including hers. Loyalties could crumble, though, depending on the trial process, public reaction to it and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting. The trial itself promises to be a blockbuster. To investigate allegations that Estrada received illegal gambling money, Senators will invite Luis "Chavit" Singson, the whistle-blowing governor of Ilocos Sur province who started off the scandal. But as in the Clinton trial, the scandal could quickly spread. If the President's financial improprieties are fully probed, his six mistresses might be called to account for their glamorous residences and other baubles. More personal revelations may be exposed. "This promises to be pornographic, like Clinton's impeachment," says one excited congressman. "Except in this case, there are at least six Monicas." Predicts Senator Rodolfo Biazon: "This will be the mother of all hearings."

The mother of the moment is the elderly but lucent Mary Ejercito, who has never been prominent on the public stage. (The President's real name is Jose Marcelo Ejercito; Joseph Estrada is his stage name.) Mrs. Ejercito was shielded from the news of the scandal by her in-house nurse, who kept the television under lock and key. Somehow Mrs. Ejercito got wind of the impeachment, and met with the President, telling him, "It's more than high time you change. The people are angry now." That has led to a new tale in Manila's gossip circles about Mrs. Ejercito pleading with Cardinal Sin to be gentle with her son. "Please have mercy on him," she says. "Not only hasn't he finished school, but he may now not finish his term." But Manila may find it difficult to take refuge in political humor much longer, as each day things get further out of control.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Manila

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