Philippines dreams on a star

The masses look set to elect a dubious former movie idol as their new president, reports Stephen Vines in Manila
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IF YOU rolled Benny Hill together with Elvis Presley in his later years and layered on top the political sophistication of Mr Bean, you would not be far from gaining an impression of the man who is almost certain to be elected President of the Philippines tomorrow.

There are no certainties in elections, particularly in the crazy world of Philippines polling, but every known indicator would have to be seriously wrong, or the poll seriously rigged, if Joseph Estrada, the Vice-President and veteran of dozens of cheesy action movies, fails to gain the presidency.

The man most widely known as "Erap" - a play on the Tagalog word for "buddy" - is likely to win the election despite wall-to-wall opposition from the Philippines establishment and not a little hostility from the bulk of the media.

This, however, has merely served to reinforce Mr Estrada's image, first cultivated in his movies, as a man of the people fighting the big guys and crusading for the downtrodden: in other words, the people who make up at least 90 per cent of the population.

Political sophisticates in the capital mock his womanising, his gambling and his love for very expensive blue-label Johnnie Walker Scotch, but they fail to recognise that "for the first time the great unwashed have a reason to vote and a person to vote for who will give them a stake in the government", says fast-talking Ronaldo Zamora, one of Mr Estrada's key campaign managers and an old friend. "These are real sad sucks," he says of Erap's opponents.

Despite his having been written off by the Catholic hierarchy as a "disaster for the country", the lower echelons of the Church were busy giving Mr Estrada their blessing at an extraordinary mass-cum-victory rally in his home town of San Juan on Friday. "Purify the hate of his opponents," pleaded Father Sonny Ramirez as he prayed for the man "anointed by our Lord to lead the country".

"We love him," said Elizabeth Cortez, who was at the mass with her friends, all of whom were vying to come up with more reasons why Mr Estrada should become President. The main point they made was, as Apolono Cristobal put it, "he loves the poor, it's people like us". Everyone knows Mr Estrada's weaknesses: he is given to making self-deprecating jokes about them. Even his lack of sophistication and evident difficulty with following complex matters of policy are turned into sources of strength.

"We've had many smart presidents," said Freddie Sunil, a driver, "and they didn't do much for us, so hell, why not someone who's not so smart, and see what he can do?"

"Sometimes being too intelligent is bad," believes Teddy Casino, a columnist for Business World newspaper. "Where have all the intelligent people gone, after all, but away from the masa [masses]?" According to Mr Casino, a vote for Erap is the "most effective way of saying, `Enough with elite politicians and college-bred technocrats. Enough with a government that does not care about the masa'".

A victory for Mr Estrada will probably mean business as usual, while at the same time being nothing short of a revolution. That does not make sense, but this is a Philippines election, where logic is firmly on hold.

Mr Estrada has precisely struck the vein of discontent that runs among the dispossessed of the Philippines. He knows how to talk to them and, with his acting experience, even has the body language to make them feel comfortable. "When you come from the people, you can't fake it," says Theresa Erercito, one of his many daughters.

But that is exactly what he does: he is from a family of middle-class professionals, with nine brothers and sisters who all settled into professional careers while their black-sheep brother was busy dropping out of college and becoming an actor portraying people infinitely less privileged than himself.

Everyone knows that Mr Estrada was never one of the poor, but he manages to speak their language, and in a muddled way, articulate their frustrations in a manner that a genuinely poor person might not be able to do.

When he first ran for office, as mayor of San Juan in 1968, he was at the height of his movie career as a populist matinee idol, and the voters swept him into office. Twenty years later he ran for the Senate and won, despite being associated with the thoroughly discredited Marcos political machine, which was ousted following the "People's Power" revolution of 1986.

His record in office was slim, but he remained sufficiently popular to be asked to join the presidential ticket of the immensely wealthy Eduardo Cojuangco in 1992. Mr Cojuangco, a long-time Marcos crony, got nowhere but Mr Estrada easily topped the poll of vice-presidential candidates and was foisted on President Fidel Ramos as his number two.

Mr Ramos does nothing to hide his contempt for his deputy. He fears Mr Estrada will fritter away the economic reforms he has introduced, which have succeeded in lifting the Philippines out of its economic stupor.

Yet Mr Estrada promises to follow President Ramos's policies, even though he is none too clear on the details and promises to get experts on the job. His real problem is that he is raising the expectations of the poor sky-high at a time of financial crisis in Asia.

"I would like to be known as a champion of the poor," he told the Independent on Sunday, but went vague when pressed on just how he would achieve this. "My experts are standing by," he said. "I can't tell now how we will overcome this crisis."

If he can't tell the people of the Philippines something more soon, he - and they - might be heading for a mighty fall.