First of all, Estrada's pardon diminishes him. He can stage all the motorcades he wants, visit the poor and make cutting remarks to his heart's content, but the fact is he owes his freedom to the mercy to a 60-year old diminutive woman who's consistently bested him. Not a good image for a 70-year old macho chauvinist who's taken pride in mastering women.
Second, although Estrada is supposedly the key figure in the so-called “opposition”, that group has been bewildered by the pardon. Some Erap supporters suspect their hero of caving and selling out to the enemy . When, on the day of his release, Erap called on a crowd of fans to applaud the president for pardoning him, nobody responded.
Third, should Estrada get too naughty and start making trouble, the government can yank hard on a short leash. Government officials have hinted that the pardon can be revoked as easily as it was granted. The Arroyo administration can also stomp on another sensitive Estrada spot: his loot. Government agents have been pressing the ex-convict to cough up the ill-gotten wealth he promised to return – P700 million and a mansion – and if he doesn't they threaten to garnish his property, kicking him out of his posh house. Although the ex-convict has blustered he would rather go to jail than give up his possessions, people know by now his bravado is hollow. After all, the day he was convicted he defiantly vowed never to accept a pardon from President Arroyo. Weeks later, he did just that.
If push comes to shove, it's hard to believe Estrada will be able to rally popular support for a cause as undignified as protecting his mistresses and mansions. If he insists on a confrontation, he could not only wind up in jail, but also stripped of his assets, with the possibility his confiscated billions will wind up in the administration's coffers...an irony so sweet, it's diabetic.
To this administration, in short, Estrada is a plump, waddling confusion bomb, thrown into the ranks of the opposition and the poor to cause dismay and division. With that out of the way, the government can then go back to focusing on its priority program, staying in power. For friends: brown bags stuffed with cash. For enemies: the back of its hand.
Of course, these calculations have one premise, which is that Erap has neither the guile nor energy to constitute a credible threat. Perhaps Arroyo's political strategists figure that he'll be too busy spending most of his time trying to rebuild his street cred, while at the same time desperately trying to hang on to his riches. If this premise is wrong – and already, Estrada's wife (the official one) has said he should run for president again – things could get interesting.
Not to worry, government will come up with another plan. Government is always coming up with a plan. The Arroyo administration is very much into political short-termism and quick fixes, as it lurches and careens from one scandal to the next. And scandals are inevitable, given the clumsiness or indifference with which politicians and government officials help themselves to public funds.
President Arroyo was recently quoted as saying that graft in the Philippines has mutated from being “a problem within the system – it may have become the system itself.” Well spoken. She just left out the bits about how her husband, friends and political allies seem to have a knack for having their names linked to each scandal. If some columnists are to be believed, when a cabinet member told President Arroyo that one of her allies had just offered him a P200 million bribe, she replied curtly: “Why didn't you take it?” If that story is true, her remark would make an excellent motto for her administration.
In the meantime Philippine democracy is stuck , the estate in flames while the leaders play musical chairs. This government's only recipe for “development” is to raise taxes which hit the poor the most (presumably, grafters and fixers who make billions are exempted). Many Filipinos are heartily sick of this administration, but are also tired, and wary. If the last People Power produced an Arroyo, what sort of monster could another uprising conjure?
It just seems a matter of time before the one group that can influence events – the military – steps in. The population, hapless and helpless, are just so many passengers aboard a careening bus. Its destination? Burma.