Joseph Estrada had nothing to gain from insisting that the remains of Ferdinand Marcos be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Like Fidel Ramos, he could have ignored the request of the Marcos family, and pleaded for more time to consider its implications. Or followed the path of least resistance, and left it to Congress to debate its wisdom. But he went ahead and stuck his neck out on a matter that for him had no political value. Why?
I do not think it was just, as some people view it, a matter of paying political debts. Everyone knows that Erap did not need whatever votes the Marcoses could command to ensure his victory. By the time Imelda Marcos announced she was withdrawing, the surveys were already pronouncing an Erap victory. Moreover, unlike in 1992, Imelda’s base had already dwindled considerably in the last election. Any association with her was therefore for Erap more a liability than an asset.
Was it blind loyalty to Marcos that led Erap to champion the dictator’s burial at the Libingan and thus risk alienating an articulate segment of Philippine society? But he was just a mayor of a small town during the time of Marcos; he was never, he insists, a Marcos crony. In fact, he too opposed martial law, he says, and campaigned against constitutionalizing the legislative powers that Marcos grabbed for himself. For six years he fought Marcos, and twice Marcos had him arrested.
But Erap does not deny that after Marcos talked to him and told him he was lifting martial law, their relationship became better. He might have been naïve to believe him, but the support he got from Malacanang, he now recalls, was crucial to the success of his projects as mayor of San Juan. “I will always be grateful to the man,” he told me in a recent interview, “ for what he did for my constituents in San Juan.”
I think it is quite obvious that despite the grave mistakes that Marcos committed during his presidency, Erap still finds much to admire in this man, the most reviled leader in the country’s political history. “I kept quiet during the Edsa revolution,” he told me in that interview, “but I was one of those who went to see Marcos in Malacanang when everybody else seemed to have abandoned him. He was all alone.”
Erap says he paid dearly for being seen as standing on the wrong side of Edsa in 1986. Investigators came to examine his assets and the accounts of his municipality and though they could find nothing they could use as basis, the Cory government kicked him out as mayor of San Juan. “Maybe I would not have aspired to become senator or even president someday,” he wryly recalls, “if not for Nene Pimentel and Cory Aquino who unjustly removed me as mayor.”
Here, I think, we have a clue to a facet of Erap’s character: this almost instinctive need to side with the underdog of the moment. He sees himself as a noble warrior who must rise above politics in order to provide comfort to someone who is already down. It is ironic that he himself is seen as a bully, for he seems to have a sharp aversion to any kind of bullying. Looking back, I now believe it may have been this image of the bully that he saw in the US negotiating panel that strengthened his resolve to fight the American bases no matter what the costs.
We can mock this quality as a hangover from his days as a juvenile toughie in Ateneo or as a masa hero in many formula Tagalog movies. But that is the way he was molded by the contingencies of his personal life. Not surprisingly, it is also this quality that endears him to his countless powerless fans.
The typical dilemma of such a person, however, will always be how to defend with sobriety an opinion given on impulse or in the heat of an emotional moment. Someone had to find him an honorable exit on the burial issue, for I could not see Erap himself yielding any ground on this without risking permanent damage to his credibility as a leader.
I could not imagine him retreating from an opinion that had hardened into a conviction by virtue of its having been so publicly and resolutely opposed. Not Erap, and not at this time. The man has been consistently derided as someone so bereft of any intelligent opinion that he must constantly defer to the counsel of his numerous advisers. To change his mind now would be to provide confirmation of this perception.
“It is a new step towards independence,” wrote Nietzsche in an aphorism almost tailor-made for Erap, “once a man dares to express opinions that bring disgrace on him if he entertains them; then even his friends and acquaintances begin to grow anxious. The man of talent must pass through this fire, too; afterwards he is much more his own person.”
The Marcos burial issue will not be the last on which Erap will be asked for his own opinion and for which he will be taunted and chastised. Not wanting to be seen as apologists, his friends and supporters may not rise for him to argue his case. He will then realize how ultimately lonely the presidency is. Still, it is good for a new president to pass through a baptism of abuse on the eve of his inauguration. And though the controversy may have bruised him, Erap has also shown that he is very much his own person. A nation should expect nothing less of its president.
In the future, however, on far more crucial affairs of the state, it may be necessary for the president to take a second look at his opinions before they ripen into convictions. He may need to learn to view the world from the standpoint of others, and to yield without embarrassment to the command of higher reason. When that time comes, I hope President Erap will have gained enough confidence to admit that he does not always have to be right.
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