Looking for a legacy
by Manuel L. Quezon III
IF things had turned out differently, Joseph Ejercito Estrada would still be in a difficult position today. The abandonment of a president, about to become an ex-president, is as inevitable as it is swift when new opportunities for advancement arise. The coming national election marks the end of the Estrada era, one way or another. For those who maintain that he is still the constitutional president of the country, it marks the end of his term; for those who found it convenient, if not necessary, to stay by his side despite his premature departure from office, it marks the close of the period of usefulness of Estrada as political figure and symbol. The holding of the presidential election on schedule marks the return of the political process to normality: and the emergence of concerns for the future, and not the past, for our politicians.
Had things turned out differently, Estrada, at the end of his term, would be looking for someone to anoint as his successor in order to preserve the appearance of power and of influence; his natural successor at any rate would have been Fernando Poe, Jr. Had things proceeded according to schedule, he might just have achieved what only Quezon, in anointing Roxas, and Aquino, in anointing Ramos, achieved among our presidents: succesfully putting in place a successor to their liking. The problem is that Estrada has not functioned as president for close to half his elected term; he has become the symbol of a particularly confusing period in our political history; and you have to wonder just how many mainstream politicians are interested in perpetuating the battlelines that emerged from that period.
The Edsa Dos versus Edsa Tres fight was strategically useful and probably necessary so long as the constitutional claim of Estrada was relevant, and a means could be found to use the fight to promote the interests of those prematurely put in the political freezer because of Edsa Dos. It was particuarly necessary in the period leading up to the May, 2001 elections. But the longer the present administration maintained itself in power, the natural process of accomodation and even cohabitation -of compromise, which is what politics is all about- ensured the erosion of Estrada’s leadership and the strengthening of a feeling among politicians (if not the people) that life has changed and one might as well get accustomed to the new ball game. Even then, the outcome of the election wasn’t satisfactory to either side, neither a ringing endorsement of the Macapagal New Era Part II nor a resounding vote of confidence in the Puwersa ng Masa.
This is where Fernando Poe, Jr., as leading opposition candidate, comes in, and where the increasingly strident and frantic efforts of Joseph Estrada to retain his political clout, comes in. From the very start, Poe has displayed a greater sensitivity to middle-of-the-road public opinion than his close friend, Estrada. Poe has always born in mind that in Philippine politics as well as society, the appearance of propriety, and not propriety itself, is what matters. No one expects leaders to be saints, but they are expected to be discreet when it comes to their pecadilloes; and even as the Estrada administration began to self-destruct in an orgy of drinking, gambling and eating, Poe made a point of pointing out how unseemly this seemed. He didn’t join the “midnight cabinet”; he counseled against Marcos’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani; he declined lavish gifts and refrained from influence-peddling. By so doing he displayed a keener appreciation of traditional Filipino values than Estrada.
It may also be that when the time came to ponder his own campaign strategies, Poe has recognized that the two biggest liabilities of his campaign would come from the relicts of the Marcos era and those of the Estrada era, which are, to a certain extent, two sides of the same coin. Poe, personally, has demonstrated fidelity to that other core Filipino value, “utang na loob,” when it came to Ferdinand Marcos whom he and his wife admired and continue to admire. But Marcos himself and the dregs of the Marcos era are two separate things; and again, as shown by his opposition to Estrada’s decision to bury Marcos with honors, Poe understands that the Marcos issue remains a contentious one in politics.
Poe’s problem, therefore, seems to be how to conserve his strengths as an idealized symbol of traditional values, while keeping politicians who have mountains of political baggage at arm’s length without actively alienating them. For him to too closely embrace former Marcos cabinet members and even Estrada and his people is to condemn a possible Poe presidency to being on the defensive from day one. No leader benefits from fighting another leader’s fights: Marcos is dead, and Estrada is a has-been. Poe would have everything to lose from raising the hackles of those who remain fiercely anti-Marcos and the majority of Filipinos whom I am convinced, do not really hate Estrada, but consider his adminstration to have been squandered if not by the man himself, then the people around him. Certainly Poe cannot relish the idea of people thinking they’d rather not vote for him, not because of his merits or demerits, but because they can’t stomach the idea of Estrada’s people descending on the government like a plague of locusts. The personal charisma of Estrada, which though diminished, endures, must be separated from his erstwhile friends, which helped scuttle Estrada’s ship of state.
But this leaves Estrada in the plaintive position in which he now finds himself. His era is passing, but he remains in jail; the fierce rhetoric and defiance that sustained him during the time he could console himself was de jure, although not de facto, still his to maintain as his term of office, is slipping away. His counsel, which might have been sought as the token leader of the opposition, is not only no longer being heeded, but if showbiz-circle gossip (dating to Christmastime) is to be believed, not even being sought by Poe, who is increasingly showing an independence of mind that must provide precious little comfort to Estrada.
If Estrada could run for the presidency, he could attempt to do what Laurel did in 1949, and seek to vindicate his name. But he can’t. The fight that is emerging between the administration and Poe will retain a vestige of being a referendum on Edsa Dos, but it will be more about more of the usual issues -graft and corruption, charisma versus machinery, and so on- that it will be about Joseph Estrada versus Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The disappointment of those, such as former Senator Tatad, who dreamed of establishing their own brand of the New Society and sustained it with dark visions of class warfare, is palpable. But what is truly significant is the decision of Senator John Osmena to cast his lot with the administration, for the man has the keenest political antennas in the country; as is Miriam Defensor Santiago’s typically blunt analysis of the situation: there is no Erap-style opposition to speak of, with the way Poe has decided to configure his campaign, in which case there is no compelling reason for her to make political decisions based on absolute loyalty to Estrada. Whether it will bode well for him or ill, Poe has decided to think of the future, and not stake his future on the past. In truth, he has no choice if he is to be his own man, and add to his support and not restrict it to the Estrada-Marcos loyalists. Estrada can still stage-manage a Last Hurrah, but it will be just that: the last croak of a group of has-beens similar to the Grand Alliance for Democracy post-Edsa I.