After Edsa Dos, I expressed the opinion, mainly in private, that having stepped down, and having avoided bloodshed, Joseph Estrada should be left alone in Greenhills and left to wallow in his riches. Ouster, under the circumstances, was enough. When Edsa Dos forces insisted he should be thrown in jail, again, I expressed reservations on the basis of the country remaining deeply divided, and on the principle that you do not kick a man when he is down. When the pressure to charge him and try him proved irresistible, I cautioned that pending the trial, he should still be allowed to stay in Greenhills, as humiliating him would not serve the interest of justice.
What happened of course was that he was clumsily arrested, and treated in such a manner as to provoke the Edsa Tres revolt. A revolt the forces salivating over his humiliation proved powerless to prevent or even counter. The reformist instincts of the President were swiftly abandoned at that point, when it proved her Civil Society allies couldn’t protect her; instead, the military and the operators shielded her and the inevitable slide to 2003 (her decision to run again), 2004 (the manner in which the campaign was conducted), 2005 (the divorce between the President and what remained of the reformists within her government) and 2006 began.
After having gone against her instincts and ordering the arrest of Estrada, the President always proved ambiguous about the trial and a conviction: from day one, she’d preferred exile as a solution. If that proved impossible, she would be persistent in offering a pardon. Meanwhile, she expressed no dissatisfaction with the trial being dragged out, since a quick resolution of the case wouldn’t do her any good (in the absence of a willingness, on Estrada’s part, to recognize her legitimacy by accepting a pardon from her), and while a drawn-out trial also served Estrada’s purposes (either postponing an inevitable conviction or keeping him in the limelight as some sort of self-styled prisoner of conscience), neither side seemed capable of figuring out what a possible compromise could be.
And so, earlier this year I proposed that Estrada cut the Gordian knot and run for office. It offered up a possibility for the public to resolve something the court was proving unable to do. Estrada preferred to continue posturing from his Tanay rest house. After the election, when it became clear Estrada’s endorsement was not as powerful as people had expected, and when the President for her part, saw the public mood (nationally-speaking) was completely against her, the trial began to move toward a resolution. On the day the verdict was handed down, both Estrada and Arroyo loyalists discovered they stood larger in their own minds than in the eyes of a public that shrugged off Estrada’s conviction. Both saw themselves in the mirror, and didn’t like what they saw: they saw themselves as sliding, inexorably, too, into the has-been column of the political divide.
With neither side having shown themselves as particularly devoted to the law, I felt that the whole thing should be done with, and Estrada pardoned. I did end up qualifying that opinion with a further opinion that a pardon shouldn’t include his taking home the loot. The opinion of Prof. Popoy de Vera struck me, which was, that the Filipino concept of justice is restitution and not retribution -as he later told me, besides that was the public view that Estrada shouldn’t keep his loot, and having been disgraced, he should bow out of politics.
The pardon, as it’s emerged, involves exactly that, and suggests at whom the pardon is aimed, in p.r. terms: the Estrada constituency among the masses. The pardon contains a pledge (whether meaningless or not) that Estrada will not seek elective office, and that he forfeits the properties and monies ordered confiscated by the court.
Estrada, for his part, had angled for nothing less than a full, sweeping pardon. the President, on the other hand, anxious as she was to grant that pardon, had to be able to throw some sort of bone to her constituents and so, made a counter-proposal: Estrada should accept a conditional pardon, the only condition being his being unable to keep the loot (which Estrada, after all, had unblinkingly claimed was never his). What seems to have finally clinched the deal was something personal and not political -the widely-held assumption that Estrada’s mother doesn’t have very much longer left to live.
Add to that the unappetizing prospects, for the Estrada, of continued detention (however pleasant it is, but from his perspective still an intolerable situation), his being unsure of whether he would secure the overturning of the verdict on appeal, and the chance that a future government might not be anxious to pander to him the way the President has, and you can well imagine why Estrada would want to settle things now, and forget any chance to achieve a proper vindication. Add to this, finally, the pending transfer of Estrada to New Bilibid prisons: being fingerprinted in an orange jumpsuit, shaved of his Elvis-style pompadour, having to endure a jail cell.
You can imagine, too, that the President, beset on all sides by problems of her own making, and who never wanted things to reach this point, anyway, would want to settle matters, too, and her willingness to take one more gamble by saying she’d allow his being sent to Bilibid.
And so, they sealed the deal.
I am not surprised by the pardon, and I’m generally inclined to look at it the way Torn & Frayed does (he opposed amnesty, though I think amnesty would have been more politically acceptable all around), but I think it does leave a little room for further interpretation.
It tells us that the President has more to gain in terms of good will from the Estrada constituency than she has to lose from Edsa Dos forces who will be angry, upset, and shocked, but who in the end lack what matters most to the President: numbers, in terms of votes, and a willingness to make those numbers count, whether in terms of public protests or going to the polls.That political math has been clear since May, 2001: and the losers here are the Edsa Dos veterans who are shocked and appalled, only now, not least because the folly of their support for the President has been exposed, not to the President but to themselves. As far as Estrada’s supporters are concerned he made the best out of a raw deal.
But it also tells us that Estrada is permanently incapable of saving anything beyond his own hide. In the end he had to kneel and beg for mercy from a President he’d never recognized as legitimate; he would not risk vindicating himself in the courts, the ultimate demonstration of his disbelieving his own rhetoric. He can always say what does it profit a man, if he is unable to bury his mother as a free man? As far as that goes, he’s right; but he would have been allowed to bury her anyway, but he could not allow himself to endure the prospects of the Supreme Court upholding his conviction, or worse, his being hauled off to Muntinlupa to endure the kind of imprisonment regularly endured by his constituents.
In the strange, because almost mystical, way our society manages to see rays of sunshine, public opinion had finally welcomed Estrada’s conviction as closure to the great divisions of 2001. His supporters could proclaim him a willing martyr; his critics could view it as vindication. Estrada and Arroyo both managed to deny that closure to both, and that’s the reason there’s public dissatisfaction. at least withing Edsa Dos and some Edsa Tres circles, with the deal.
One comment I heard, from some Edsa Dos veterans, was, “and he didn’t even spend a single day in jail.” I understand some Estrada supporters were upset, too, because their idol caved in and left them twisting in the wind, proclaiming the illegitimacy of an administration from which Estrada himself decided to seek a pardon only a legitimate president can grant.
What this has achieved is that it has simply reshuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic. The President removed the chains keeping steerage from joining the First Class passengers on the deck of the sinking ship. Those astute enough to realize the ship’s doomed long ago fired the distress rockets and clambered into lifeboats.
In a nation where symbolism trumps substance, Estrada never had to suffer for his rhetoric, the President never gave the legal process to reach its final conclusion; there wasn’t even a token effort at proving justice could be tempered with mercy; instead, mercenary calculations were passed off as executive mercy. But, as Amang Rodriguez so famously said, “in the long of time, we shall success.”
Much as everyone saw the pardon coming, what I don’t think anyone outside of official circles expected was for it to be used so crudely, so patently politically: a historic verdict required a historic demonstration of presidential statesmanship; instead, it was a tool used to blunt the effects of embarrassing headlines resulting from the Senate hearing; and it was a brusque dismissal of those who, all these eventful years, stubbornly insisted on giving the President the benefit of the doubt because she had to be, somehow, better than her predecessor.
What happens next? It remains to be seen whether Estrada will be grateful to Arroyo, and whether a new Arroyo-Estrada alliance is in the making. I can only hope so. It relieves the opposition of the burden of having to maintain an uneasy peace with the Estrada forces, and finally offers up the prospects for the veterans of Edsa 1 and 2 to reunite.
Then again, it may also give Estrada a new lease on political life. But the damage has been done; a free man, Estrada is free to return to engaging in his vices in full public view, and to prove himself ungrateful and incapable of doing anything for those who loyally stood by his side since his fall from power.
If Estrada were to run for the presidency again, he would lose. But he can begin investing, quite heavily, in the political futures of his sons. What that future is, remains to be seen. now he is just another ex-president. He has achieved his aims, and how minimal they turned out to be. There is nothing left for him to do, not least because who, now, will follow him after his kneeling before the President?
And as for the President, it’s back to the War Room because so many other fights still need to be fought, and any relief she obtains always proves increasingly temporary. Tuesday and Wednesday night, apparently, neophyte congressmen were brought to the Palace for their egos to be stroked. Last night, a larger meeting of all non-opposition congressmen was held at the Palace, ostensibly to survey the political situation, but possibly to consider the party line concerning the President’s cash gifts, since the governors already came up with their own excuse.
Jove Francisco chronicles how reporters found out about the pardon, which wasn’t expected to be announced until Friday. Reporters apparently take their cue from how the President color-codes her dresses: if she’s in blue, you know she’s in crisis mode. Also, Jove mentions a gathering of the Cabalens in the Palace, which made for a surreal scene:
I heard some people who witnessed the event comment that the event was a bad idea. That it won’t help their cabalen-PGMA any bit. Imagine, here’s a President who has been distancing herself from the payola issue, and then here are Mayors saying stuff like “they need the controversial cash gifts” … inside the palace mismo. In bad taste, at sino man daw nag isip, – malamang di nag iisip. Ill advised, ika nga.
As for the goings on in the Palace bunker, word is that Sec. Bunye’s assumption of the role of Acting Executive Secretary is in preparation for his assuming the role in a more permanent capacity, which is why two deputy presidential spokesmen have been appointed; Sec. Ermita, according to scuttlebutt has been given a one-way ticket to America, and before he left, he told his people to start packing their things.
The reason the announcement of the pardon was moved to Thursday, instead of Friday, when the Palace prefers to make big announcements so it has the weekend to survey the scene and gage public reaction, is chronicled in turn by Uniffors. It’s a great read. And explains why the Palace dispensed with its only make breaking news as the weekend starts rule of thumb.
For a roundup of blogger’s reactions to the pardon, see tonyocruz.com.