Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Filipinos Welcome Estrada Pardon, Maintain Reservations About Arroyo

Majority of Filipinos welcomed the long-awaited release of ex-President Joseph Estrada following the clemency extended to the former leader accused of politically motivated trumped-up charges. Estrada was convicted of Plunder and racketing charges by a 'kangaroo' court division of an Anti-Graft body specially created to try the former President following the conspiracy-led uprising unseated him in 2001.



The pardon was given by current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo nearly after the six-year trial ended in a guilty verdict during a heavily-censored promulgation in September 2007. During the media coverage of the promulgation, the authorities made sure that the public would not see the dramatic moment when Estrada, who remains heavily popular with the Filipinos masses, received the "guilty" verdict.

Never Guilty

Earlier, a nationwide survey showed that an overwhelming majority of Filipinos believe Estrada is innocent of the Plunder charges and that they expected him to be released. The same survey conducted by the Social Weather Station (SWS) also revealed the sentiment of the Filipinos that in case he be declared guilty, Estrada should be pardoned. According to the survey 62% of Filipinos do not believe "Erap" Estrada enriched himself nor committed corruption while he was President; a total of 84% think he should be pardoned if convicted. The SWS, the most active social survey institute in the country, conducted the survey just before the promulgation of the Sandiganbayan decision declaring Estrada guilty of the charges.

Supporters of the former Philippine leader are delighted to see him free again but have reservations about the nature of the pardon and the administration of Arroyo. Estrada and the opposition have long maintained the illegitimacy of Arroyo's administration after the constitutionally questionable decision by the Supreme Court that declared the position of President vacant and Arroyo as the successor. In 2004, Macapagal-Arroyo 'won' in the presidential elections heavily tainted with allegations of electoral fraud. In legal terms, Estrada's acceptance of the executive clemency connotes recognition of the authority of Arroyo. According to Estrada's followers, they want him free but still consider Arroyo's administration as illegitimate.

Filipinos generally believe that Estrada, a former actor who rose from being a mayor, senator and Vice-President before becoming President with the highest plurality vote in Philippine history, is not guilty of any of the charges. Before his arrest and detention, Estrada declined two offers made by the administration of Macapagal-Arroyo for him to live in voluntary exile in exchange for waiving criminal prosecution.

Estrada won as the Philippine's 13th President by a landslide election in 1998 but was unable to finish term after a corrupt governor accused him of pocketing jueteng kickbacks. The accusations mothballed into the so-called EDSA II rebellion backed by the Army's chief-of-staff. Majority of Filipinos believe that Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos and then Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, led the conspiracy that used the kickback issue as a propaganda ploy to bring Estrada into public disfavor.

Objective political analysts suspect that Ramos sought to depose Estrada to avoid prosecution for the scandalous deals his administration entered into. Ramos was named in several multi-million dollar corruption exposes during his term, including the infamous Clark Centennial Exposition project and the PEA-AMARI Manila Bay Reclamation deal, dubbed to be the "grandmother of all scams." Estrada, who assumed office with bankrupt national treasury funds, had threatened to investigate Ramos' complicity in the scams.

The 2001 EDSA II rebellion against the defamed former President acquired the backing of certain business leaders who were disadvantaged by Estrada's pro-poor policies. The Catholic Church led by the powerful Jaime Cardinal Sin also played a part in Estrada's unseating. The politically meddling Cardinal Sin saw a Catholic ally in the successor, Macapagal Arroyo. Despite numerous and persistent allegations of corruption and electoral fraud against the new administration, the Catholic Church continued to support Arroyo, who indeed proved to be a faithful supporter of the Church's positions on various social issues including family planning and the death penalty.

Link to the SWS survey September 2-5, 2007 Social Weather Survey: Majority expected Erap to be acquitted: http://www.sws.org.ph/pr070912.htm.

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