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Saturday, 28 April, 2001, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Estrada supporters hold fast
Estrada supporters
The crowds are largely composed of the urban poor who swept Mr Estrada to election victory
By South-East Asia correspondent Simon Ingram

Hours after heavily-armed Philippine police and other units escorted former president Joseph Estrada from his home to a prison cell at police headquarters, the country's present leader, Gloria Arroyo - as quoted by her spokesman - declared that a "historic moment" had occurred.

We want our constitution respected, and for Erap to be president again

Estrada supporter
"We have shown," Mrs Arroyo went on, "that justice is working in the Philippines."

Yet a few days later, with huge crowds of pro-Estrada supporters mounting a noisy and continuous rally in his support, and with rumours of a conspiracy to topple the government swirling through Manila, it is evident that Mrs Arroyo can have only limited grounds for satisfaction at the downfall of her predecessor.

'People power'

The protests have surprised many by their size and persistence.

At times, the boisterous, but peaceful crowd gathered at the Catholic shrine has numbered up to 100,000 people.

The site has already witnessed two previous "people power" revolutions - against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and, last January, against Mr Estrada himself.

The crowds, largely composed of the same urban poor who swept Mr Estrada to election victory in May 1998, say they will stay put until he is re-instated in office.

Many have been angered by what they see as the humiliating manner in which the ex-president has been treated.

Demanding change

"We want Gloria Arroyo out, " said one woman protester, Malene Ecleo-Benagua.

Gloria Arroyo
Mrs Arroyo: nervous performance

"We want our constitution respected, and for Erap (Mr Estrada's nick-name) to be president again. This is People Power Three, made by the Filipinos, those who are poor."

The protesters' conscious appeal to popular sympathy alarms many observers.

Activist groups - including those who helped topple Mr Estrada from power - accuse his political allies of orchestrating the street protests in a cynical attempt to protect the fortunes they made under his patronage.

Upcoming elections

"What I worry about is that this is being packaged as a class war, a war between the rich and the poor, which I think is far from the truth," says broadcaster Vicky Morales.

"Its really a war about what's right and what's wrong. Before, under our judicial system, the big fish always got away. So this is definitely a start for us."

What I worry about is that this is being packaged as a class war, a war between the rich and the poor, which I think is far from the truth

Vicky Morales
But as the legal wrangles drag on - first over Mr Estrada's conditions of detention, then over his planned transfer to a new maximum security prison south of Manila - there are clear indications that the authorities' resolve to make an example of Mr Estrada may be weakening.

The main reason may be political expediency. The current turmoil comes just three weeks before the country votes in the first set of elections since Mr Estrada was ousted from office, in which two groups of candidates - either pro-Estrada or pro-Arroyo - are in direct competition.

"They made a big mistake arresting Estrada just before the election," says political commentator Conrado de Quiros. "It's given the opposition to Mrs Arroyo the chance to exploit this for electoral ends."

Mr De Quiros says an election setback for the government would make it harder to pursue the Estrada case aggressively through the courts, and would raise a question mark over Mrs Arroyo's own political future.

Her term of office ends on 2004.

Public assurances

After initially trying to keep above the controversy, on Saturday Mrs Arroyo was forced to issue a public assurance as to the safety and well-being of her disgraced predecessor.

Joseph Estrada
Many are angry over hoe the ex-president has been treated
Mr Estrada would have his day in court, she said in a television broadcast to the nation.

At the same time, the president delivered an implicit response to rumours circulating in recent days of an attempt by Mr Estrada's supporters to rally the armed forces behind their cause.

The Philippines, she said, should not fall victim to "a few misguided elements who dream of taking advantage of this situation to further their ambitions at the expense of the rule of law."

If it appeared a nervous performance by Mrs Arroyo, it may serve to raise further question marks about the stability of her administration in what promise to be turbulent weeks and months ahead.

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See also:

28 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada heads to new jail
25 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Jailed Estrada defiant
25 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
What next for Estrada?
25 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada speaks to BBC from prison
10 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada: Movie hero or villain?
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