The unsinkable Erap

As he marks his 75th birthday today (Thursday), Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the one the masses adoringly call “Erap,” has all the reason to look back at his sturdy political career of 45 years, and say he’s not done yet. No other president, apart from Ramon Magsaysay and Cory Aquino, has been able to retain the loyalty and adulation of the ordinary Filipino as much as Erap has.

Analysts had scoffed at his bid to recapture the presidency in 2010. Yet he landed in second place, garnering nearly the same number of votes that he got in 1998 when he was elected president. The affection that the masses have lavished on him translates into electoral votes not only for himself but also for persons with whom he’s identified, like his wife and son. The constituency he commands is between 9 and 10 million, roughly 25 percent of the national vote.

A recent Pulse Asia survey reports the value of an endorsement given by the nation’s key political leaders in the 2013 senatorial elections. Topping the list of strong endorsers is Vice President Jejomar Binay at 73 percent, followed by President Aquino at 66 percent, and Erap at 51 percent.  This is fascinating, to say the least.

Aquino and Binay were winners in the last election, and Binay himself is touted to be the strongest contender for the presidency in 2016. Erap holds no office and is not even making movies, yet he remains a political heavyweight. The same survey shows that, in contrast, an endorsement from detained former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will be a kiss of death for any senatorial candidate. Up to 70 percent of those surveyed said they would reject any candidate she endorses.

What we have here in this remarkable political tableau is a set of personalities representing differing profiles of political leadership in the post-Marcos years.

Cory Aquino, and by extension P-Noy, is the figure of moral leadership. Its constituency cuts across all social classes. Its power resides in its capacity to transcend class disparities so as to project the image of a unified moral community. Its vision is of a nation that can overcome the complex problems posed by corruption in government through the power of personal ethical example. Its approach to the problem of mass poverty owes less to any structural analysis that prescribes redistribution than to the spirit of charity and sharing that leaves the unequal social order untouched. It remains a powerful vision despite its palpable failure to lift the masses from the pit of poverty.

Erap, and now Binay, is the figure of populist leadership. Its constituency comes from the lower “D” and “E” social strata, which roughly correspond to more than half of our people who suffer from chronic economic insecurity and social exclusion. The drawing power of populist leadership resides in its ability to articulate the frustrations and hopes of the underclasses in a deeply hierarchical society. Its preferred vocabulary taps into active class resentments against a profligate ruling oligarchy, even while its own icons may not themselves be paragons of frugal living. Its social vision is that of an inclusive society where no one gets left behind. Yet its choice of programs betrays a fixation with patronage. Its Achilles heel is governance. The populist leader tends ironically to be authoritarian in his approach to governance.

And, lastly, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who rose to the presidency by a fluke. She represents the figure of technocratic leadership, at least during the early years when she seemed content to serve out the remaining term of the duly elected president she replaced after a middle-class-based civilian-military coup ousted him.

Indeed her mandate came from the fact that she was taking over the reins of government from an administration that appeared to be mired in unprofessionalism and lack of appreciation of the urgent challenges of a highly competitive world. Highly educated and politically pedigreed, she traveled extensively and projected herself abroad as the modernist leader of an emerging economy who understood the long-term requirements of governance and sustainable development. Alas, all her pretensions to modernity collapsed when, in the face of recurrent challenges to her legitimacy, she sought refuge in the well-trodden path of a transactional presidency.

Had GMA remained committed to the project of a modern state, building institutions while ignoring personal influence, and promoting economic sectors that are not the preserve of feudal privilege, she would have blazed a wide path for a new generation of reform-minded politicians. Her ignominious record as president has only made it even more difficult for educated leaders with a modern outlook to be trusted by the electorate.

On the other hand, the rise of Binay—who gained enormous popularity from his association with Cory Aquino and Erap Estrada—shows that Philippine politics remains riveted to the alternating impulses of moralism and populism. No one would have thought this possible in 2001, after Erap was forced to vacate Malacañang. But, seven years later, in 2008, Cory surprised everyone when she told Erap she was sorry for her role in his removal. She said it was a mistake.

To this day, many have not understood the full import of Cory’s gesture. The way it appeared to me conveyed only one message: Here was the icon of moral leadership bowing to the authority of the people’s will.