(Editor’s Note: The presidential profiles will be running in no particular order but as the stories come in from our reporters in the field.)
(Fifth of a series)
MANILA, Philippines—On a humid night in Tuguegarao City, where the earlier daytime temperature reportedly hit a sweltering 39 degrees Celsius, a crowd of around 5,000 came to see him and didn’t seem to mind the heat building up inside the Cagayan Sports Complex.
At 73 and even with a drawl, former President Joseph Estrada could still make multitudes hang on to his every word—whether it leads to a litany over what he maintained to be his “unlawful” ouster and conviction for plunder, or to one of his so-called “Eraptions.”
That night, he deftly combined both: “My beloved mother once told me, ‘what’s with you, Joseph? You didn’t finish your studies. You didn’t finish your presidency. Now, even your (jail) sentence, you didn’t finish.’”
The audience composed mostly of farmers, workers and vendors lapped it all up, their hearty laughter turning into cheers and chants of “Erap! Erap! Erap!”
But after delivering the punch line to full effect, Estrada shifted moods and made the follow-through in all earnest: “And so I promised her that time that I will finish the programs that I started for the Filipino masses.”
The scene had become a hallmark of almost every Estrada sortie since the former multi-awarded actor embarked on what could be his ultimate sequel: To regain the presidency after a disgraceful fall from power.
In between wisecracks, the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) standard-bearer would remind listeners that people didn’t have to form long lines for rations of rice during his abbreviated tenure in Malacañang, unlike during that of his predecessor Fidel V. Ramos or his successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“A hungry stomach knows no law,” he said, a line he always uses as a prelude to his food security program, which he said would be anchored on finally bringing peace to Mindanao and turning the fertile but strife-torn region into the country’s food basket.
He also recalled how the Armed Forces during his presidency overran the camps of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao—only for the Arroyo administration to return the “liberated” areas to the secessionist group.
During a PMP proclamation rally at Plaza Miranda in Quiapo in February, Estrada indicated that, should negotiations once more fail, he would again wage an all-out war against the MILF.
The communist New People’s Army, Estrada said, would be his next target.
“The country is already very small but still you want to divide it,” Estrada said, addressing the remark to the rebels.
The Estrada plan is simple: Eliminate the insurgency, enforce peace and order, and, in the process, promote agriculture, create jobs, and put food on every table.
The speech is not complete without a scathing review of the Arroyo administration which was installed by the people power revolt that kicked him out of Malacañang in 2001.
“We are now No. 1 in corruption,” he said. “It’s not the opposition that’s saying this. It’s foreign groups.”
Estrada said the Arroyo administration scrutinized the contracts entered into by his administration shortly after his ouster and that it eventually “found nothing.”
“There was no fertilizer fund scam,” Estrada said, referring to the P728-million scheme that allegedly diverted agriculture funds to the Arroyo campaign in the 2004 elections.
Detained for six years mostly under house arrest, convicted of plunder in 2007, and then granted presidential pardon that same year, Estrada insisted that he never stole a single centavo from the public coffers.
“(Then Justice) Secretary Hernando Perez offered to let me go to a country of my choice in exchange for my resignation (from the presidency) in writing. No charges would be filed against me and I can bring anything I want with me,” Estrada said.
He would have readily accepted the offer if he really stole hundreds of millions from the government, he stressed.
“I told him (Perez) ‘I will not do that even if you throw me in jail.’ Ayun, kinulong nga ako (Well, they did lock me up)!” Estrada said, drawing more laughter from the crowd.
After his legal debacle, Estrada had supposedly agreed to never again run for public office as a condition for his pardon—or at least this was how Malacañang put it.
“(He) has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office,” according to the pardon document issued by Ms Arroyo in October 2007.
But a continuing show of massive support from people on the ground convinced Estrada that he’s still good for a take two, said his campaign manager, former Senate President Ernesto Maceda.
Estrada’s decision to again enter the presidential race was also due to the failure of the different opposition groups to come up with a common candidate.
“Around October last year, when it was clear the opposition would not unite,” Estrada said, when asked when did he arrive at a decision to seek the presidency one more time.
Maceda maintained that Estrada had never categorically stated in his public remarks during his incarceration and after receiving pardon that he would no longer stand for election.
The huge crowds who turned up during Estrada’s nationwide Lakbay Pasasalamat—or the “Thanksgiving Tour” he made well before the start of the campaign period—also persuaded him to run again, Maceda said.
In that tour, Maceda said, Estrada sensed he had received “a clear draft” from Filipinos for him to return to Malacañang.
“There was this town hall meeting in Pandi, Bulacan, where Estrada gave the names of the opposition’s (possible unity candidate). He mentioned (Manuel) Villar, Loren (Legarda) and Mar (Roxas). Noynoy (Aquino) was still not in the picture,” Maceda said.
“The people said they didn’t want any of those. They said ‘we want you. Erap pa rin kami (We’re still for Erap),’” he added.
‘Congressmen are expensive’
In a recent Inquirer interview, Estrada said he won the presidency in 1998 because he went directly to the people.
“I don’t rely on (political) leaders. Congressmen are too expensive,” he said, noting that then administration candidate Jose de Venecia Jr. was the one who “had all the congressmen.”
PMP campaign coordinator and former print reporter Angel Gonong said the party’s advance parties contact local officials only to secure permits for rallies and motorcades. These officials don’t have a role in mobilizing people to attend Estrada’s rally.
“Walang hakot (We don’t haul people to the rallies),” Gonong said. “We just inform the people that Erap would be in town and the people go out in the streets.”
Local PMP candidates get to meet Estrada but they don’t receive campaign funds, Gonong said. “They just want Erap’s endorsement.”
Political science professor Bobby Tuazon, policy director of the University of the Philippines-based Center for People Empowerment and Governance, offered an explanation for Estrada’s seemingly undiminished charisma despite his fall from power.
“Many of our countrymen still go for those who don’t seem intelligent. They want somebody they can identify with,” Tuazon told the Inquirer. “Many of them have been disappointed by brilliant leaders, like bar topnotchers.”
Always the underdog
In the movies, Estrada often played the meek underdog, one comically struggling with his English who would end up playing the tough street hero for his poor neighborhood or damsel in distress.
Off-screen, however, Estrada counts among his friends astute politicians, business leaders, and leading academics.
International statesman and former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim addresses Estrada as his “brother.” In a recent visit to Manila, Anwar touched base only with Estrada and Sen. Benigno Aquino III, now one of his rivals for the presidency.
“I admire him,” Anwar told reporters after having brunch with Estrada at the swank Manila Polo Club in Makati City.
“He’s so honest,” Anwar said, laughing. During brunch, he said, Estrada conceded in jest that compared to himself, his Malaysian guest knew more about Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal.
Former Bataan Rep. Felicito Payumo, whom Estrada then picked to head the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), said members of the Estrada Cabinet have remained close to the former President after his ouster because “they were able to (keep) their reputations intact.”
Though he was Estrada’s first ever appointee, Payumo now supports Aquino’s candidacy as a member of the Liberal Party.
“In Subic, Estrada didn’t call me to let in a smuggled shipment of rice,” Payumo said, recalling his stint as SBMA chair.
Antonio Lopa, the valedictorian of Estrada’s Ateneo High School class, vouched for Estrada’s intellect: “In fact, he was above average. He didn’t belong to the honors class but his grades were good.”
Before entering politics, Estrada was a multi-awarded actor and producer. In 1967, he was elected municipal mayor of San Juan, an office he would hold for 16 years. He was one of hundreds of local officials who were asked to step down after the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution.
When he left the town hall, San Juan boasted of some P24 million in savings and an impressive infrastructure, according to Estrada’s campaign website.
“These included the establishment of the first San Juan Municipal High School, the Agora complex, a modern slaughterhouse, a sprawling government center with a post office, a mini-park and the concreting of 98 percent of San Juan’s roads and alleys” the website erap.ph read.
In 1972, Estrada was selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) in Public Administration by the Philippine Jaycees. He was also voted Outstanding Mayor and foremost nationalist by the Inter-Provincial Information Service in 1971.
The following year, he was named “Most Outstanding Metro Manila Mayor” by the Philippine Princeton Poll.
In 1987, Estrada was elected as one of only two opposition candidates to the first post-Marcos Senate.
He takes pride in having authored a law that promotes the breeding of the carabao (water buffalo), the Filipino farmers’ beast of burden, and also in having voted against the extension of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement.
In 1992, Estrada won the vice presidency (as the running mate of businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco). In 1998, he made history by posting the biggest landslide victory in Philippine presidential elections, garnering 10.7 million votes and leading his closest rival De Venecia by 6.4 million votes.
By going on his Pasasalamat Tour, Estrada wanted to thank supporters for electing his wife Loi Ejercito and his son Jinggoy to the Senate in 2001 and 2004—even as Estrada faced trial at the anti-graft court.
For Estrada, the vote for Loi and Jinggoy meant that the people still supported him despite his downfall.
“(Senators Loi and Jinggoy) were elected not on their own but because of Erap,” Maceda said.
Erap For President Part II is about “finishing the last performance of his life,” Maceda said. “He just wants to finish his programs especially for the poor.”
“There were things that were left undone,’’ Lopa added. ‘’Naturally, one of the things he wanted to finish was the war with the MILF.”
Before the campaign, Payumo said, some of Estrada’s friends expressed concern about his chances of winning.
“Well-meaning friends intimated to him that all this vindication might be lost if he loses this time,” Payumo said.
Lopa said Estrada’s Ateneo classmates shared the same sentiments.
“But they have not told him,” Lopa said. “Leave it up to him to decide. He’s intelligent.”