by Raissa Robles
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s sins “are as clear as morning,” her predecessor Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who turns 74 today, just said.
In particular, he said, the former President-turned-Congresswoman Arroyo should squarely face allegations she cheated his best friend Fernando Poe Jr. in the 2004 polls.
Estrada is one political personality who makes covering Philippine politics fun. He keeps getting swatted down but he manages to keep bobbing up again.
Estrada’s emergence yesterday from last year’s electoral defeat is a signal that he intends to play a prominent role in the sidelines to get Arroyo hauled before the courts. The impeachment of Ombusdman Merceditas Gutierrez is Round One of that battle.
Many would simply attribute this to Estrada’s desire for vengeance against the woman who clapped him in jail. It’s deeper than that. Estrada’s “conscience” bothers him. He has an unpaid debt to this best friend Fernando Poe who tried to get him out of jail by running for President. I’m sure Estrada continues to blame himslf for Poe’s death.
Estrada is the prodigal son of Philippine politics. He is the lovable scoundrel who keeps sinning and keeps getting forgiven. That is his charisma.
Thankfully, Estrada has spared the nation from having to debate whether he is a hero who should be buried at Libingan ng mga Bayani when his time comes. He has already built his own lovely speulchre inside his vacation resort in Taytay, Rizal.
I remember the time I got Erap into trouble with the all powerful Arroyo administration over a story.
It was a scoop for my newspaper South China Morning Post. At that time, the story of Arroyo’s calls to Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano had just broken out, followed by the mass resignation of her cabinet officials and ex-President Corazon Aquino’s call for Arroyo to resign.
Erap – State Prisoner No. 1 – was understandably kept out of media’s reach. But Sandiganbayan gave him leave for a medical check-up at Cardinal Santos Hospital. And his Ateneo batch mates naturally came in a noisy bunch to visit him. One of them snuck me in. NO, it wasn’t his good friend Tony Evanglista but someone else :).
Erap recognized me from his days as a senator when I coverd him. And so, under the beady eyes of his guards (I think one or two of them were inside the room where Erap entertained his guests), I managed to ask him some questions.
And you know how it is. When you are with your old pals, the jokes keep cracking. And Erap was in top form.
Arroyo’s punishment was painful. She barred him from attending his class l grand reunion that December despite repeated pleas. Despite that, Erap did not bar me from interviewing him.
Here’s the story that came out in Manila Bulletin shortly after my article was published in Hong Kong and picked up by foreign wires:
Erap denies making disparaging remarks
BRENDA PIQUERO TUAZON
August 24, 2005, 8:00am
Former President Joseph Estrada said yesterday that while efforts of religious leaders to strike a reconciliation between him and President Arroyo did not materialize over the weekend, “it is out of character for me to say disparaging remarks against her.”
The detained opposition leader described as “malicious” published reports attributing to him the contents of text messages meant to make fun of Mrs. Arroyo from anonymous senders.
Estrada denied news stories quoting him as having said that he would welcome Mrs. Arroyo to his Tanay, Rizal detention quarters with a pony or a stroller in the event of her resignation or as a result of the impeachment process now pending in the House.
Published reports quoted Estrada as having said that if then President Marcos left Malacañang on a chopper, and he on a boat, then Mrs. Arroyo can leave on a pony or a stroller.
“It is out of character for me to make fun of people regardless of their shapes and sizes, whether they are fat or thin, short or tall,” he said.
At the height of the country’s severe economic and political turbulence, Estrada noted that such unverified reports would only deepen the division in the political landscape.
“In my five years of government detention and despite the humiliation my family and I have been subjected to by the Arroyo government, there was never any time or event that I caused to embarrass Mrs. Arroyo or anybody in the administration,” he said.
Estrada said it was unfortunate that news stories attributed to him statements that came from text messages to put Mrs. Arroyo in a bad light, especially amid efforts among church leaders to reconcile opposing political groups.
“To be fair, the reconciliation effort was not initiated by Malacañang, but by Bro. Mike Velarde,” Estrada said.
Estrada made it clear there will never be any settlement between him and Malacañang on the allegations of plunder thrown at him by the Arroyo government, which up to now, he said, “remain unsubstantiated with me now having spent almost five years in detention.”
“The rest is up to God,” Estrada said.
And here is my story:
Jailed, ousted president Joseph Estrada claimed over the weekend that his successor, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, would suffer his fate and rebuffed her attempts at political reconciliation.
“I have a room specially prepared for her,” Estrada said in an exclusive interview, hours before he delivered a much-applauded speech before a mammoth crowd celebrating the Catholic charismatic group El Shaddai’s 21st founding anniversary in Manila.
“And a pony, too,” added the 68-year-old actor who has been under house arrest with a pond full of ducks and a stable of retired racehorses as his constant companions for the last two years in his 15-hectare, 14-bedroom villa in Tanay, Rizal east of Manila.
Estrada was allowed by the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan to have a medical check-up at Cardinal Santos Memorial Hospital in suburban Quezon City Saturday and attend an overnight prayer rally of the three million-strong El Shaddai.
This was apparently done with the blessings of Malacanang Palace, which had hoped El Shaddai founder Miguel Velarde could persuade Estrada to publicly shake President Arroyo’s hand onstage. Mrs Arroyo has repeatedly blamed Estrada and his allies of plotting to unseat her.
“No way,” Estrada said, adding he would make sure to arrive at the Rizal Park Grandstand after Mrs’ Arroyo left.
Clad in denim jacket and pants while undergoing a cardio-pulmonary check-up, Estrada appeared more relaxed and healthier than in January when he underwent a knee operation in Hong Kong.
Estrada told Morning Post why reconciliation was off his agenda. He predicted Mrs Arroyo would go and he was basing this on his own experience. “I was confident, too,” of not being ousted, he disclosed.
“In fact, overconfident,” said Estrada, who had erroneously banked on a landslide win to ride out an impeachment trial.
The brilliant strongman “Ferdinand Marcos left (Malacanang) by plane. I left by boat, “ he said. “She will leave by stroller,” he jokingly alluded to her petite frame.
Estrada was impeached for allegedly committing graft, violating the Constitution and betraying public trust by plundering US$80 million from state coffers, receiving illegal gambling payoffs and pocketing commissions from state transactions.
Efforts by his lawmaker-allies to stop his impeachment trial triggered a military-backed, popular revolt after barely three years in office.
Today his successor, President Arroyo, is fighting to stop her own impeachment. She was recently accused of committing nearly the same offences Estrada is now standing trial for. But these are for such alleged crimes as rigging her electoral victory, obstructing the investigation on the matter, and receiving illegal gambling payoffs to fund her presidential campaign.
He claimed on hindsight that he would still have left the presidential palace when he did “to avoid bloodshed.” He disclosed: “The Presidential Security Group said it won’t allow anyone to enter the Palace. There were 11 tanks inside.”
“I’m glad not to be in her shoes at this time,” he said adding, “this is one of the worst times.”
On Saturday night, Mrs Arroyo waited and waited for Estrada, then finally delivered a short speech saying: “I am prepared to take a step to call on my opponents to become united…(and heed) the call for reconciliation.” The working class crowd clapped politely.
In contrast, the crowd went wild on seeing Estrada and punctuated his emotional speech many times with applause. He sang to them and promised them: “I will dedicate the remaining years of my life to the service of our people.”
A disappointed Mr Velarde, who erroneously referred to Mrs Arroyo as “the former President”, said: “I do believe this is the time to embrace each other.”
He publicly urged Estrada’s release from detention but also called for constitutional change –
widely seen as a graceful exit for Mrs Arroyo.
Political analyst Manuel Quezon III explained why the masses treated the lazy Estrada like a political prodigal son, while they remained cold to the smart, workaholic Arroyo. “They are the extreme types of leaders,” he said. “Estrada is all charisma, Arroyo all technical ability.”
For a Filipino leader to succeed, “executive ability must be counterbalanced by a certain amount of charisma,” Mr Quezon said.