Impeachment hearings against Philippine President Joseph Estrada are expected to begin early this week, and although his party's majority in both houses of Congress means he's likely to survive, the country is increasingly unstable. The charges stem from accusations by state governor Luis Singson that Estrada was the "godfather" of a protection racket and received more than $8 million in bribes from organizers of the illegal numbers game jueteng and more than $2.5 million in kickbacks from tobacco taxes. The president denies the allegations.
Several Filipino leaders, including former Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos and Cardinal Jaime Sin have called upon the president to resign. Estrada has repeatedly refused, preferring to see his name cleared by a friendly Congress. Last week, one of the principal proponents of the 1986 People Power revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos proposed a "snap" election "to reestablish the legitimacy of the Estrada administration," but the Philippine Daily Inquirer pointed out that while this option may be "politically palatable," it is unconstitutional since a) the president and vice president would be required to resign, which they are not disposed to do; and b) the president would be ineligible for re-election. Still, the paper suggested that the constitution might be amended to permit a snap election since it offers attractive outcomes to all parties: If Estrada were to win, he would gain absolution from the corruption charges and the disappearance of the impeachment complaint, and if he were to lose, he would have a "peaceful exit … more graceful and less wrenching than a resignation or an ouster through a People Power revolt." However, a news story in the Manila Times quoted the parliamentary speaker flatly refusing to consider a snap election because the impeachment case must be resolved first.
El País of Spain declared that Estrada has more to fear from the dreadful state of the economy—the peso is at a record low against the U.S. dollar, and the stock exchange reached a two-year low Friday—and the far-from-successful offensive against Muslim separatists than from his political enemies. It said, "The besieged Estrada is more likely to survive the complex and protracted impeachment procedure than the social consequences of the galloping crisis he is trying to ride."
The Straits Times of Singapore reported that on Friday Estrada announced to a crowd at a housing project that "his crusade is a struggle between the poor and the rich. … By inciting class conflict … he has opened a new front in a frantic bid to spread out the blame that is hounding his administration. This may well save his collapsing presidency." An op-ed in the Philippine Star took the opposite view, however, suggesting that whatever the outcome of the current crisis, Estrada's image as a man of the masses has been tarnished:
In the jueteng issue, [Estrada] stands accused of a godfather-like operation that funneled millions into his private coffers from the small bets placed by mostly poor players who often had to scrounge for their family's basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. The evil of this alleged jueteng payola is magnified against the booming declarations that his … presidency would be dedicated to the poor. But here he is depicted as sucking blood from the poor that he claimed to care for. This is betrayal and hypocrisy of the highest order!
Speaking of bribes, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a story, attributed to "sources familiar with the crisis," claiming that despite its denials, the German government paid a ransom to free at least one of the German hostages held by the Philippine Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf (for more on the story, see this "International Papers" from August). It alleges that the kidnappers received less than half the total ransoms paid because Filipino negotiator Roberto Aventajado kept part of the money. It added:
Aventajado was not the only one who took his cut; other politicians and various middlemen were also among the recipients. Another part of the ransom money was stolen while awaiting delivery in Manila. In addition, during the transport of the money through the Jolo jungle, a "road toll" was exacted by rival Abu Sayyaf factions.
What U.S. journalists won't say: Writing in Britain's Sunday Telegraph, Mark Steyn dissed the U.S. media: "Ever since New Hampshire, the press has played a game of self-fulfilling prophecy. They keep insisting … that Humpty Dubya has had a great fall and that all the GOP's horses and all the GOP's men can't put him together again. But Humpty refuses to crack, and there's only a fortnight to go." An op-ed in the International Herald Tribune attacked American journalists' coverage of George W. Bush. Longing for the days of H.L. Mencken, Hope Keller declared, "Most American political commentators today are so timid, so mealymouthed, so committed to a distorted ethic of fairness that they are unable to state the obvious about George W. Bush: that he is unfit to be president." The Age of Melbourne was unimpressed with both candidates. It concluded:
Mr Gore … tries too hard, forcing his laugh, pandering to audiences and overstating his achievements. Mr Bush … is a former frat boy turned born-again Christian whose smirking manner bespeaks a lack of concentration and intellectual gravitas. … Perhaps this is what happens to politics when the US economy is as prosperous as it is—merely a choice between two heavily managed, moderately talented men vying to take over as nightwatchman.