The prisoner president who's plotting his return to power

Since his overthrow and arrest in 2000, Joseph Estrada, ex-president of the Philippines, has dreamt of a comeback. <i>Kathy Marks</i> reports
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The Independent Online

Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the former president of the Philippines, is depressed. His air-conditioning is erratic, his bed is too small and he has no bathtub in which to luxuriate. Mr Estrada is the Philippines' most famous prisoner, and a cause célèbre for his hordes of supporters.

Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the former president of the Philippines, is depressed. His air-conditioning is erratic, his bed is too small and he has no bathtub in which to luxuriate after a hard day in detention. Worst of all, his chances of freedom are receding by the day as his old friend and presidential candidate, Fernando Poe, slides inexorably down the opinion polls. Mr Estrada is the Philippines' most famous prisoner, and a cause célèbre for his hordes of supporters.

They gather daily outside Camp Capinpin, the military compound where he is confined to a bungalow, replete with staff, after fleeing the presidential palace by the back door in January 2001.

The rise and fall in his fortunes has been as melodramatic as any of the low-budget movies in which the ageing former film star made his name. Swept to power by a landslide in 1998, he was forced to resign after a popular uprising against his alleged massive plundering of public funds.

Or was he? "I am still president of the Republic of the Philippines," Mr Estrada said defiantly, as we tucked into a lunch of crab and lobster in Capinpin, two hours' drive north of Manila. "I never signed a resignation letter. Gloria Arroyo [the incumbent President] stole my job. Her administration has no legitimacy. We are living in a banana republic."

Many Filipinos, particularly the urban poor among whom Mr Estrada liberally distributed largesse, agree. But to his outrage, the hard-drinking, womanising former president finds himself on trial for robbing the country. The case has been unfolding since late 2001 and shows no signs of ending. His hopes are pinned on Mr Poe, a fellow film star who, if elected, would almost certainly find a way to release him.

But with Mrs Arroyo ahead in the polls, prospects for the 67-year-old star of Arrest the Nurse Killer and Dodong the Tricycle Driver look bleak. "They have ganged up on me, demonised me, incarcerated me," said Mr Estrada, who wears a wristband embossed with the presidential insignia. "They have thrown everything at me, including the kitchen sink. Not just the kitchen sink. The toilet bowl too."

Theatrically raising his arms to heaven, he said: "I'm just praying hard that the truth will set me free. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years. God has his own purpose."

The stakes are high for Mr Estrada, universally known as Erap, which is why he has reportedly pumped millions of dollars into Mr Poe's coffers and is expertly directing his election campaign by mobile phone from his bungalow. His meddling is infuriating Mrs Arroyo, his former vice-president, who replaced him. "Erap is very hands-on in Poe's campaign," one local journalist said. "He is a king-maker behind bars."

How can a heavily guarded prisoner possibly exert such influence? It seems that detention in the Philippines is a flexible concept. Mr Estrada occupies a modest dwelling that is a former officers' quarters. In theory, his movements are tightly regulated by the anti-corruption court where his interminable trial is being held. In theory, he is permitted only visitors approved by the court. In theory, he is not allowed to have a mobile phone.

The reality looks different. Yesterday, half a dozen staff fussed around the prisoner, addressing him as "President Estrada" and attending to his every whim. One of them ceaselessly swished the air with a fan to keep the flies off his lunch.

The raffish former leader, whose bouffant hair is slicked back in a handsome quiff, took a steady stream of calls on his three mobile phones. "Hello, how is the most beautiful lady senator we ever had?" he greeted one caller in his throaty voice. "Don't believe all the lies they're telling about me."

Mr Estrada's cream-coloured bungalow, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by three policemen lounging in a makeshift checkpoint, was crammed with guests. He receives a queue of friends and well-wishers, including aspiring politicians hoping to boost their chances by being photographed with him.

He bribes his guards to allow his mistresses to visit; the court even allows him home leave. When he asked to see his mother in Manila on her 99th birthday, the chief prosecutor, Dennis Villa Ignacio, granted his wish, telling him he had "a soft spot for mothers".

Yet Mr Estrada is full of woes. His lavatory does not flush properly, his sex life is "zero" and his arthritic knees give him grief. The long-suffering court is obliged to investigate all his complaints. His gripe about the water supply was dismissed after the judges visited his quarters and used the lavatory. Judging from the paunch that spills over his beige casual trousers, he is exceedingly well-fed.

But he remains in a high state of indignation. "Look around," he says, gesturing at the cheap wallpaper, linoleum floor and hard plastic chairs. "I was a superstar, the country's second highest-paid movie actor, with beautiful houses and three or four cars that I changed every couple of months. I travelled all around the world. How can I be comfortable here? The bedroom is smaller than my dressing-room at home."

He broke into one of his frequent guffaws. "I've gone from president to prisoner." It was not supposed to be this way. When he decided to emulate his idol, Ronald Reagan, and abandon the movie industry for politics, his plan was that being president would be his final role.

"One time when I was alone, I told myself, Erap, you owe it to the poor people, the people who lined up to see your movies, who brought you fame and glory, to give them something back. I wanted to be remembered as the champion of the masses."

Mr Estrada's laddish personality brought a new style to the presidency. He became famous for his singular use of the English language, and even poked fun at himself, publishing a book of his sayings called Eraptions: How to Speak English without Really Trying. They included such phrases as, "I am good at remembering things because I have a pornographic memory". He also cultivated his philandering image, once joking that "Bill Clinton has the sex scandals; I just have the sex".

But it was not long before his unorthodox conduct began to raise eyebrows. There were stories of days-long gambling sessions aboard the presidential yacht, one of which reportedly culminated in a close friend winning a submarine. Old friends from the film industry - his "midnight cabinet" - descended on the Malacanang palace for late-night drinking binges.

His enemies in the wealthy élite accused him of running the Philippines like a gangland boss. In 2000, the Senate began impeachment proceedings against him for allegedly pocketing £40m in paybacks from illegal gambling syndicates and tobacco taxes. The case collapsed and, in an echo of the "people power" protests that toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, a million middle-class demonstrators took to the streets. He quit the palace, and was arrested. The supreme court installed Mrs Arroyo.

Mr Estrada paints himself as the victim of a conspiracy by the business community and the Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Jaime Sin. And many observers question the legality of his ousting. "It was unconstitutional," he said, puffing on yet another Lucky Strike through a silver cigarette-holder.

"There are four grounds for removing a president. One, resignation. I did not resign. Two, conviction in an impeachment trial. The trial was aborted. Three, permanent incapacity. I am very healthy. Four, death. I am very much alive."

His trial has reached a stalemate. The prosecution completed submissions last December, but the defence has yet to start. Instead, Mr Estrada has released a 90-minute video CD in which, in mind-numbing detail, he rejects all the charges. "I've withdrawn my lawyers and presented my defence to the people," he said. "They've created a special court with handpicked justices to convict me, so why should I bother to defend myself?"

Mr Estrada says the only favour he would expect from Mr Poe, if he is elected, is a fair trial. He denies financing or orchestrating his friend's campaign, but few believe him. Certainly, he has been interfering. The authorities were furious when he smuggled out an audio tape, of recording-studio quality, in which he warmly praised Mr Poe. It was played over loudspeakers at a rally last week.

His opponents recognise his influence. He still has a huge following, particularly among millions of impoverished voters. In the slums of Manila, people say he looked after them and still does. They care little whether he did steal public funds because they believe that, like Robin Hood, he stole to give money to them. During breaks from plotting, Mr Estrada gazes longingly over the wall of the camp at a sprawling country estate just over the way.

By a cruel twist, his place of incarceration lies a stone's throw from his own weekend retreat. The 15-hectare estate, which he modelled on Reagan's Santa Barbara ranch, has a racetrack, gymnasium, chapel, swimming pool and man-made lagoon on which black swans glide. It has spacious living quarters, and glorious views of rolling hills. "I can't go there," he said, mournfully.

Again, the reality is different. Last month, Mr Estrada was allowed to celebrate his birthday at home with hundreds of friends. He has also been there without permission. One frequent visitor to the bungalow says that when he arrives, he sees suitcases around, as if Mr Estrada has hastily returned. In March, 14 camp guards were sacked after authorities learnt he had been spending time at the estate with a mistress. Mrs Arroyo is believed to be giving him special treatment because she fears civil unrest.

Mr Estrada claims she has offered him house arrest at his ranch in exchange for endorsing her candidacy. He snorted. "I'd rather rot here in jail." Many people believe the complaints about his living conditions, each one more absurd than the last, are designed to stall his trial. He says he passes the time reading the Bible, performing calisthenics and reflecting on the achievements of his role models: Reagan and Richard Nixon.

He is determined to protest his innocence. "I may have committed some mistakes in my governance, but corruption is not one of them," he said. Does he have any regrets about his time as president? "Only that I trusted people too much."