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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 20:40 GMT
Estrada on the edge
President Estrada
Estrada could turn things around in the next few months
By BBC News Online's Mangai Balasegaram

Barely two years ago, Joseph Estrada swept to power with the largest ever majority. Now his future is in doubt.

It's just like in the movies... The hero gets beaten up in the beginning but still wins in the end.

President Estrada
With an impeachment trial on charges of bribery and corruption hanging over his head, he may have to end his term midway in disgrace.

And he could go down in history as the first Asian leader to be ousted from office because of corruption.

The former movie star - who often starred as the underdog that triumphed against all odds - has remained defiantly confident.

Anti-Estrada protest in Manila
There have been daily protests against Estrada in Manila...
"It's just like in the movies," the president once said.

"The hero gets beaten up in the beginning but still wins in the end."

Mr Estrada maintains his innocence over charges that he received millions of dollars in bribes from illegal gambling and tobacco taxes.

Analysts say it's too early to tell whether he will survive.

"He could weather the storm, as [US President] Clinton did," said Dr James Putzel, development studies director at the University of London's School of Economics.

Outcome unclear

President Estrada's opponents have been pressuring him to resign, to save on a lengthy trial.

Protest supporting Estrada
... but Estrada still has supporters on the streets
They say, even if he's not guilty, he has lost credibility, significantly among the business sector.

But the president is unlikely to step down ahead of elections due early next year.

He's banking on getting acquitted, as he said, just days before his trial: "As far as I'm concerned, I want this to end before Christmas."

The gap in time from now until the elections may be a decisive factor in the president's survival.

[Estrada's] walking a narrow, dangerous line... [hoping] he can turn around the situation

James Putzel
"It's a long drawn-out process of hearings to hear the evidence. Estrada's banking on using that period to restore credibility and support," said Dr Putzel.

The key challenges facing President Estrada are:

  • preventing further resignations from his largely-intact cabinet
  • retaining the backing of the poor - polls indicate they still support him
  • ensuring the already-battered economy, in the doldrums since the 1997 Asian economic crisis, does not slip further and mounting a credible set of reforms

"It's a game of brinkmanship," said Mr Putzel. "[Estrada's] walking the precipice in the hope that he can turn around the situation [in time]."

Poor's support

The president's alleged involvement in jueteng (illegal gambling) does not appear to have significantly damaged his reputation with poor voters - many of whom bet on illegal cockfights every week.

Cardinal Jaime Sin
The elite and church leaders have led the calls to resign
Polls still show more people approve than disapprove of him.

And the poor do not feature strongly in Manila's daily anti-Estrada rallies, made up of elite groups, politicians and the Roman Catholic Church.

But an economic downturn could wither support from the poor.

If they then hit the streets, and the protests reach a critical mass, then the president will find it harder to survive.

Bribery allegations'

To convict the president, two-thirds (15 members) of the 22-member senate have to vote in favour, in a procedure very similar to that in the US.

It will be hard for Mr Estrada to garner support if the allegations of a bank account holding $4m of bribe money can be stood up.

But bringing a clear-cut conviction is likely to be difficult, Mr Putzel said.

Luis Singson
Singson has a "long, long history" of dirty politics
The evidence is "rather spotty" and the witnesses "hardly reliable" - not least Luis Singson, the provincial governor who made the allegations of bribery against the president.

"[Singson is] a self-confessed lord of gambling rackets and has a long, long history of engaging in dirty politics."

In any case, Philippine politics is a murky, dirty business, he said.

Many local politicians - who provide support for national ones - have skimmed the profits from jueteng.

"And there are certain avenues that those prosecuting him will not want to treat, because they themselves might be culpable," he said.

"They wanted him to resign without getting him to open the can of worms."

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See also:

30 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Opposition steps up anti-Estrada campaign
03 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada hit by fresh resignations
27 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada defiant as peso plunges
18 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada the man of action
17 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada crisis fuels mobile mania
13 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada's changing fortunes
26 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada: I'll quit if proved guilty
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