World

Star for the masses

May 11 1998
World

Star for the masses

May 11 1998

Star for the masses

PHILPPINES

Say this about the whisky-loving womanizer and former action movie star who may become the next president of the Philippines: he doesn’t take himself too seriously. During his current term as vice-president, Joseph Estrada, known to most Filipinos by his nickname, “Erap,” and famous for his malapropisms in English, published a book called ERAPtions: How to Speak English Without Really Trial. Atypical entry, with full-page cartoon, reads: “TV talk show host to Erap when he was still a senator: ‘If you become president, what will you do about the abortion bill?’ Without hesitation, Erap replies: ‘I’ll pay it!’ ”

Rightly or wrongly, that image sums up the way much of Manila’s elite views the 61-yearold front-runner in the May 11 presidential election: a political version of Dumb and Dumber. “He doesn’t engage with visions and thought,” says psychologist and political analyst Cristina Montiel. Then she adds: “That’s a mild way of putting it—he’s just not very bright.” There are nine other contenders— not counting former first lady Imelda Marcos, who pulled out of the race last week—but the latest survey puts Estrada well ahead in popularity, rating 34 per cent against 12 per cent for his nearest rival. Although such polls are not always a reliable gauge of Philippine elections, Estrada’s strength appalls his critics—especially in the business community. Outgoing President Fidel Ramos, elected in 1992 for a constitutionally limited single term, has gained wide praise for turning the “sick man of Asia” into a coming economic tiger. Although the currency has been hit hard by Asia’s financial crisis, the nation of 72 million has weathered the storm better than most of

its neighbors. Now, many analysts fear for the Ramos legacy. ‘Without overstating,” says a Western diplomat, “Ramos is seen as relatively clean. There is a question mark whether those standards will continue.” There could hardly be greater contrast than that between the slim, austere Ramos, a cigar-chewing former general who likes to

talk policy, and Estrada, the slack-gutted, pompadourcoiffed former B-movie star who played the gunslinging hero saving the day from rich and powerful bad guys. As a senator from 1987 to 1992, Estrada’s main achievement was a bill protecting the water buffalo. As vice-president, he raised controversy by joining in on raids—

wielding his own high-powered weapon— while heading a trigger-happy anti-crime commission. His penchants for card-playing, mistresses and Johnnie Walker Blue Label did not endear him to the middle class in a strongly Catholic country. But he has a huge following among the poor, who make up the majority of voters. He was elected vice-president in a separate contest in 1992 with twice as many votes as Ramos. Repeatedly, Estrada has said he will “be pro-poor and pro-country.” He refers to his critics as “intellectual snobs” and defends his screen background with a nod to Ronald Reagan. “The most powerful nation in the world can elect a movie actor,” he says. “I don’t see why the Philippines can’t.” Not that Estrada’s rivals instil much highlevel confidence. Respected columnist Amando Doronila called the field “the most uninspiring set of pretenders to national

A screen idol leads a colorful election race leadership” in the 100 years since the United States took possession of the Philippines from Spain. Ramos is backing his “anointed” successor, House Speaker Jose de Venecia, but he trails Estrada, plagued by a wheeler-dealer image and alleged links to a bribery scandal. Former president Corazon Aquino, who took over from Marcos in 1986, supports ex-Manila mayor Alfredo Lim, known as “Dirty Harry” for his own shoot-first crackdown on crime while Manila’s police chief. A dark horse is Senator Raul Roco, dubbed an “honorary woman” by colleagues for progressive legislation on rape and other issues. Popular with business, he is going

after the youth and female constituencies of fading contender Miriam Defensor Santiago, an outspoken, pistol-packing judge who claimed Ramos gained his narrow victory over her only by fraud last time around. In a memorably vicious campaign, Estrada has faced heavy attacks on his character. It is no secret that he lived with his mistress for 16 years before reuniting with his legal wife, had a string of other romances and produced at least seven children by various mothers, all of whom he says he supports. Early on in the campaign, however, the male candidates made what they called “a gentleman’s pact” not to further pursue the mistress issue (a common situation, to be sure, in a

country where divorce is still outlawed). Estrada has also said he no longer drinks. That has not stopped influential Cardinal Jaime Sin from campaigning against him on moral grounds, although one columnist compared Estrada to a Timex watch: ‘Takes a licking but keeps on ticking.” Estrada has still managed

to gain some elite supporters, not least because many business people fear that de Venecia’s patronage politics would be worse. To help him on economics, Estrada has pulled in 30 advisers, including nine Philippine officials working with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “The guy is not naïve,” says sociologist Randy David. “He has a highly developed political sense and instinct for people— whom he can trust and not trust.” Yet his victory is no sure thing. Analysts say that with so many candidates, the next president may need as little as a fifth of the votes to win. And given predictions of high levels of fraud in the election, Estrada could find that the bad guys hold all the cards.

BERTON WOODWARD with KAREN EMMONS in Manila