Asia's loosest cannon shows he can take care of business

The Philippines' President looks after his old pals, reports Stephen Vines
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The Independent Online
CONSISTENCY - who needs it? Certainly not the President of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, who has made a name for himself since his election last year as the loosest cannon in the Pacific.

Just a couple of months ago, questions were raised over a birthday celebration for former legislator Romeo Jalosjos who is serving two life terms for raping an 11-year old girl. But President Estrada was unbothered. "Let the man have some fun," he cheerfully declared.

Last week President Estrada, better known in the Philippines by his nickname Erap (a play on the Tagalog word for mate or buddy), showed a rather different attitude . When the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to child rapist Leo Echegaray the President summoned a press conference, solemnly warning the nation that the court was undermining the rule of law. To press home his point he had Echegaray's victim, who was 10 years old at the time of the rape, sit beside him with a tea-cloth covering her head to avoid identification. He promised the young girl that he would ensure that her rapist step-father was put to death.

How does Erap explain the contradiction in his attitude towards the two rapists? He doesn't. When the going gets tough, the former movie star, with a characteristic shrug of the shoulders and sly smile, cracks a joke. During his election campaign last year, for example, he was asked whether his numerous love affairs undermined his suitability to run the country. His retort: "Both President Clinton and I have sex scandals. But Clinton has the scandals and I have the sex."

In the case of the child rapists, there is one obvious difference between the two men. Jalosjos, the one enjoying the birthday party, is a millionaire who was elected on the ticket of the President's party; Echegaray, whom the President wants to see executed, is a poor house-painter who could certainly not have afforded the cost of bringing in two truckloads of food to celebrate his birthday, let alone the hiring of a boy's choir to serenade him.

Yet Erap presents himself as a man of the masses. Indeed, he ran for election on this slogan and little else. Asked what his policies were, he would reply, "I'm pro-poor".

The poor have yet to see what the President can do for them. The very rich, by contrast, have captured the President's ear. Few are richer than Eduardo Cojuangco, a leading crony of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and long-time friend of Mr Estrada, who himself was a pal of ex-president Marcos. Mr Cojuangco and his clique are already reaping rewards from the new regime.

Criticised for his plans to renovate the presidential palace, Mr Estrada immediately declared that his big business friends would cough up. They will, he says, also pay for a lavish upgrading of the presidential yacht which Erap plans to use as his base for three months in the year when he tours his island-based nation and "visits the poor".

Filipino businessmen are not famous for handing over money without expecting a return. They are unlikely to dish out millions of pounds for these refurbishments without hope of gaining some favours from the President.

Mr Cojuangco, who fled the country with Marcos, is not only back but reaping the benefits of his association with President Estrada. His most spectacular coup was to secure the leadership of the San Miguel Corp, most famous for its beer but also one of the country's biggest conglomerates.

Meanwhile Erap's old friends from the movie world are also finding themselves catapulted into directorships of companies whose shares were sequestered by previous governments after they were found to be part of Marcos's ill- gotten gains. Others to benefit from presidential patronage include his brother Larry, his former English language tutor, the composer of songs for his movies, and a famous film director.

President Estrada shrugs off accusations of nepotism and favouritism as being no more than the practice of past presidents. He has a point.

Indeed he still has many good points according to the adoring poor people who put him in office and have warmly applauded his symbolic "pro-poor" gestures which range from a great deal of flesh-pressing in slum areas to joining farmers in milking cows and announcing plans for land distribution and resettlement of squatters.

There is a profound gap between the intellectuals and other middle-class critics who rub their eyes in disbelief at the spectre of their President and the masses who still love him.

President Estrada, like his idol, ex-US president Ronald Reagan, knows how to play to the gallery. If anything, he is even better than his American counterpart. He plays on his weaknesses, such as his supposedly poor English, to draw himself closer to the people who elected him and have long been alienated from the rich living in their heavily guarded compounds.

The reality is that Joseph Estrada comes from a middle-class background, and the closest he ever came to poverty was playing the role of a poor hero in his films. But he really knows how to act. For the time being that seems to be enough.