The issue is corruption

The political allies of deposed president Joseph Ejercito Estrada have banded together to form what they call the “Puwersa ng Masa” (Force of the Masses).  In an obvious bid to tap into what remains of the mass base of the former movie idol who became president, they are running on the issue of loyalty to a fallen friend – “Walang iwanan. Ipaglaban ang kaibigan!”

They want Erap restored to Malacanang, and with him, the whole web of corruption that ignited the explosion of People Power II.

They could not have chosen a more fitting message to communicate everything that is wrong about our national life.  Loyalty and friendship are values that are especially cherished in cultures like ours, where a person’s wellbeing is secured less by law than by a system of personal obligations.  We elect public officials because we owe them a debt of gratitude or because we think of them as patrons or sponsors we can approach in the future.  That is why we value personal “approachability” more than competence or integrity.

These “barkada” values may be suitable for gangs and preliterate societies.  But they no longer have any place in the public life of large and complex societies like ours.  Joseph Estrada got into trouble because he was operating by the expectations of an obsolete culture that clashed with the aspirations of modern nationhood.  Today he continues to be perplexed by the magnitude of the public reaction to his misdeeds.  As he sees it, he had done nothing wrong that previous presidents of the country could not be accused of doing. Other presidents had their own political patrons and cronies.  They kept lovers; they accepted “gifts” from grateful recipients of presidential favor.  They also “saved” for their retirement.   So why is poor Mr. Estrada being singled out?

In a recent interview, he shares his amazing worldview.  He says he is the victim of a “conspiracy” by the rich and the Church, and of the “intellectual snobbery” of the educated few.  Once again one hears echoes of the same tired lines that he spoke in the melodramatic movie roles for which he is remembered.  That the rich would not suffer seeing someone from the masa become president of the country.  That the hypocritical Church of the rich will always view the loose morals of the poor with contempt.  That the educated pompous elite from the exclusive schools, like those who gathered at Edsa, will always put down an honest son of the poor who could not finish school because of poverty.  From the moment he became a politician until now, Estrada has not stopped mouthing these scripted lines to project a total identification with the poor.

What makes this identification so galling is that it is totally false.

Joseph Ejercito Estrada was not born poor.  He came from an upper middle class urban family.  His parents gave him the best education that money could buy.  He dropped out of school not because of poverty but because of delinquency.  The educated scoff at him not because of his incomplete education but because of his incompetence and unfitness for public office. The Church frowns on his morals not so much because of the multiple extra-marital relationships he flaunts but because of the wanton corruption he brought to the highest office of the land.

In general, the poor don’t think very highly of politicians; their experience tells them to take their money and to continue distrusting them. But once in a lifetime, from the horizon of their fantasies, they glimpse the figure of a champion who would liberate them from their misery.  This is what Erap meant to them.  They voted for a fantasy created by movie scripts. But contrary to their expectations, this hope of the masses proved to be more rapacious than any of the country’s past presidents.

Decent members of his Cabinet expressed dismay but looked the other way when the Erap showed an early impatience for policy questions, and a lack of appreciation for long-term goals.  They excused his unstable work habits as the unfortunate product of his movie past.  But they started to worry when he habitually surrounded himself with shady characters and power brokers who were constantly whispering deals and following up papers.  They warned him about the negative public perception this would create, but they did not have the nerve to tell him about the vicious circle of corruption that had already engulfed the presidency.

The office of the president in our country is so powerful that anyone who occupies it acquires an aura of moral infallibility. Everyone in his official family knew what was happening, but only a few could tell Erap what was wrong, and they eventually quit.  The rest remained because the President had been a loyal friend to them. They forgot they were accountable to a nation.

Today, some of Erap’s steadfast friends are running for public office. They want to be seen as good people who would not abandon a friend.  But to them, we say: assume responsibility for the crimes of your fallen friend.  You cannot tell us that you did not know or did not see or did not participate in actual corruption.  Nor can you say you were not direct beneficiaries.  The whole nation rose in revulsion, but you said nothing and did nothing.  In fact, most of you went on defending the actions of a president who had disgraced our people. That makes you partners in plunder.

The issue is corruption.  Corruption aggravates poverty and keeps our country in a state of stagnation.   The goal of People Power II will remain unachieved until we are able to stamp out this scourge in our national life.  The first move should be to ensure the conviction of Estrada, and the defeat of all his candidates.


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