Estrada is the issue

People Power I made its first public appearance in 1983 at the massive funeral for Ninoy Aquino, extended its reach to the rest of the country in the snap election campaign against Ferdinand Marcos, before exploding in full splendor at Edsa in the wake of a failed military coup.  People Power II, in contrast, began with small sporadic demonstrations in major cities, found a common focus in the nationwide broadcast of the impeachment of Joseph Estrada, before exploding in fury at Edsa in the wake of a failed impeachment trial.

The first people power abolished Congress and the Marcos constitution, set up a revolutionary government, wrote its own charter, and called for elections only a year after.  The second people power preserved Congress and the existing constitution and merely replaced the president before putting its legitimacy to the test in a pre-scheduled midterm election.  Cory Aquino’s candidates swept 22 of the 24 senatorial seats in the 1987 election.  Can People Power II duplicate the electoral success of People Power I in the May 2001 elections?

It can be done, but it will not be easy.  In the 1987 election, the two survivors of the Cory juggernaut were Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and movie actor Joseph Estrada.  Enrile made it because of his role at Edsa, whereas Estrada won out of sheer popularity.  Their counterparts in the 2001 election are Orly Mercado, who, as Defense Secretary, came to Edsa with the rest of the defecting military and police commanders, and Noli de Castro, a mass media figure who may win out of sheer popularity.

Thirteen senatorial seats are being contested in these elections.  A 13-0 sweep is a result devoutly to be wished, but it will take a miracle to realize it.  An 11-2 result for Gloria Macapagal’s candidates would be a replay of the magic of people power.  A 10-3 result would still be considered a sweep, while a 9-4 or an 8-5 combination might still be taken as a victory for people power.  For the results to have any positive significance to the legitimacy of GMA’s presidency, they should not fall below these figures.

But the more important question is not how many should win, but who should not win.  Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Juan Ponce Enrile have so mocked PPII that re-electing either one of them would be like spitting at the Lady of Peace at Edsa.  We can say the same thing about Dra. Loi Estrada: making her senator would be like telling her, “Sorry we made a mistake in kicking out your husband.”  And though they may subtly distance themselves today from the sins of the deposed president, Puno, Honasan, Lacson and Angara remained so devoted to Estrada till the end that their election would most certainly be seen as a slap on people power.   That leaves three prominent candidates running as adopted members of the opposition, namely, Noli de Castro, Orly Mercado, and Santanina Rasul.  People power would have no beef with them if they were running as true independents.  But to speak on the same stage and to link up arms with Joseph Estrada and his friends, as they have, is hardly the conduct of an independent.

In 1987, except for Enrile and Estrada, the people repudiated all the key figures associated with the Marcos dictatorship.  The Aquino government needed that electoral confirmation because a restive military had begun to challenge its popular support and its capacity to hold power.  Today, the Macapagal government is not only secure from military threat, its constitutional legitimacy has also been unanimously affirmed by the Supreme Court.  Therefore, ideally, the results of the May elections should have no bearing on its political legitimacy.

In truth, however, the results of the elections will have a decisive impact on the capacity of Gloria Macapagal to govern the country in the next three years.  It is inescapable that the deposed president and his allies see the May elections as a referendum on the validity of his ouster by people power and of the Supreme Court decision that constitutionalized it.  Much more is at stake for Estrada in these elections than for the candidates he has endorsed. If his Puwersa ng Masa wins, the government will have difficulty prosecuting him and, even more, putting him in jail for his crimes.  But if it turns out that our people have fully rejected him in their hearts, that rejection will be borne by all his proxies. In that sense, he is being unfair to his candidates for hitching his fallen star to theirs in this contest.  But then he is probably making it worth their trouble by spending some of his billions to ensure their victory.

What does it all mean for the People Power II agenda?  Two things basically: first, there is an ex-president to prosecute for corruption; and second, there is a crucial election to win.  The trial of Estrada must proceed as quickly, as fairly, and as openly as possible.  We need this trial as a public record of the crimes that agitated our people so much that they had to resort to extra-constitutional means to get rid of a sitting president.

It is understandable that Estrada wants the cases against him to be pre-empted by the results of an election.  Earlier, he sought immunity against prosecution from the Supreme Court, and the Court turned him down.  Now he seeks the same effect by the political route of a popular vote.  From this perspective, Estrada is the single most important issue in these elections.  If anyone is going to take up Angara’s recent challenge to a meaningful debate, let the Erap proxies defend the proposition:  Joseph Ejercito Estrada was a good president.


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