by Alan Robles
There was no escape for Joseph Estrada. Last month, government authorities hounded the disgraced national leader/convicted criminal, backed him into a corner and finally served him what he had coming to him.
Yes, that's right. On October 25, a scant 43 days after being convicted of plunder, after zero days spent in jail, Erap was free, his rights restored, his record wiped clean.
It's events like this that make you wonder, what was it all for?
Wasn't it just six years ago that, in an epic, cinematic crowd scene, hundreds of thousands of outraged Filipinos took to the streets to turf out an oafish, corrupt thief from the presidency? Were those citizens asking for too much in hoping that the new management would refurbish the tatty estate called Philippine Democracy and live a more exemplary, virtuous life than the previous occupant?
Well, the answer's in. Hundreds of murders, billions of pesos in kickbacks, bribes and corrupt deals, innumerable abuses of authority and several constitutional hijack attempts, coup plots and bomb explosions later, it's clear the estate isn't just close to collapse, it's also on fire.
Whatever hopes people might have had after Edsa 2 have long gone -- swept away by the gale force winds of unrestrained traditional politics, the Filipino patronage system which exercises power and uses public funds for the benefit of one's family, friends and province mates.
To top it all off, now we have the sight of the two main antagonists apparently kissing, making up and cutting a deal. All Estrada had to promise was to not run for public office, and to give up his ill-gotten wealth and voila – he was free, recipient of an absolute pardon. Not that (having spent most of the last six years under house arrest in a comfortable countryside villa) he'd ever really been jailed. He didn't seem the worse for the incarceration, emerging as fat as ever, still shambling and slurring.
Estrada's pardon shows how much things have unraveled. Despite Arroyo's claim that she granted clemency in the spirit of “national reconciliation” (reconciling whom? Law-abiding citizens with convicted criminals?) it would take a contortionist to follow the logic of why a Really Big Fish, tried and convicted for criminal acts, should suddenly receive such solicitous consideration. Where's the salutary lesson? The stern example? Instead you have a delighted Erap telling anyone within range that he's innocent, that he never committed any crimes, that his conscience is clear and that it was he who was the victim. So much for confession and contrition.
But Erap is the loser in the deal, although he might be slow to realize it. He wasn't released because of any need for unity, nor because President Arroyo was smitten by his baby brown eyes, or sexy, winning way with the ladies. There can be no personal spark between the two. Estrada, a proud man, no doubt remembers the humiliating way he was arrested in 2001: the authorities all but broke into his house and carted him off to a military camp where he was fingerprinted and had his mugshots taken. For her part, an equally prickly and famously vengeful Arroyo can't forget Estrada's taunts and slights. When he was president, Erap used to refer to vice president Arroyo as bulilit (dwarfish) and koolkat (kulang sa sukat, height-challenged).
No, there's nothing personal or humanitarian behind it. Estrada was let loose for one simple reason, the same one that's animated most of this administration's decisions: cold, tactical politics.