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MANILA — President Joseph “Erap” Estrada is in the battle of his political life as his lawyers fight corruption charges in an impeachment trial.

His actions may be assailed at dinner tables and debated in bodegas throughout this Southeast Asian archipelago, but he can rest assured that in an Ermita district brothel called the Speedy Music Lounge, he has the full support of the barmaid, two hookers, the crone on a stool by the door and a fat guy named Cesar Villacorta who serves as the establishment’s “tour guide.”

“All the past presidents did the same thing,” he said. “All are corrupt: [Fidel] Ramos, [Ferdinand] Marcos. So Estrada is not guilty. Estrada is a former movie actor — you know that? Like Ronald Reagan.”

While most Filipinos are glued to their television sets watching what might shape up as their own trial of the century, forgiving attitudes like Villacorta’s are becoming increasingly rare in this city. Manila is awhirl with rumors, conspiracy theories and deadly bombings that many assume Estrada had a hand in to distract attention from the trial.

Estrada has been accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from gambling operators, promoting graft and corruption, and buying mansions for his mistresses.

Even at the best of times, Manila is a colorful place. This city of 10 million is the capital of a far-flung nation encompassing a Roman Catholic majority, a separatist Islamic guerrilla movement in the south and dozens of languages and ethnic groups. The nation outlasted centuries of Spanish and American colonizers, and every guidebook cites the maxim that the Philippines spent 350 years in a convent and 50 in Hollywood.

An impeachment may be the last thing the Philippines needs, with 4-year-olds who sleep on sidewalks and TGI Friday restaurants that charge a poor man’s weekly salary for a chicken sandwich and fries. On top of the political turmoil, five bombings hit Manila on Dec. 30, killing 22 and wounding 96. The government blames Islamic separatists, though opposition groups declared that it was a ploy to allow Estrada to declare martial law.

Yet something is afoot. Unlike in the 1999 impeachment trial of U.S. President Bill Clinton, there is a sense that something essential is happening. In a nation once known for the brutality of its president, Marcos, and the size of his wife’s shoe collection, a leader is being held accountable for allegedly accepting bribes and buying mansions for mistresses.

Some almost take pride in it all. Any cab driver can tell you it is the first time a leader has been impeached in Asia. Stray down the dirtiest slum streets, wander into the most questionable watering holes, and you will find people eager to discuss the Estrada affair.

“Our future depends on the result,” said Ding Su-ay, a picture framer barbecuing fish and drinking rum with a mob of friends at his stand in a poor neighborhood. “Because if President Estrada is still the president, the economy will just keep going down.”

In Tai Pai Tong Chinese restaurant, businessman Bonifacio Mamaung and his friend Jose E. Foronda, an account manager for Eastern Shipping Line Co., drank San Miguel beers Friday and ate shrimp appetizers as they watched the impeachment trial on television.

“It’s just like the O.J. Simpson trial in the United States,” Mamaung said. He added, “I think that, slowly, the pro side is making a better point, and in the end, the president will be found guilty.”

“Estrada will not step down,” Foronda argued. “There will be a military intervention. Something bad will happen.”

Deep suspicions of Estrada can be found in the provinces as well as the capital. Louie Reyes, a cockfight organizer in the island of Cebu, said he has been suspicious of Estrada since the bombings. “I concluded the bombings could have been done by a terrorist group, it could have been the communists who were doing it for disruption, or it could have been done by a group with political motivation, like the government.”

The trial is not only an occasion for gloom. Some entrepreneurs have elbowed into the fray to make a buck. In Robinson’s Mall, a T-shirt vendor was selling two views of Manila reality. One shirt, in the Philippine Tagalog language, supported Estrada with the words: “LOYAL — Erap Always.” Next to it was displayed a shirt that proclaimed: “FED UP! Erap Resign.”

Even acquitted, it would be difficult for Estrada to survive the turmoil. With bishops calling for his resignation and old lady newspaper vendors distributing stickers that read “RESIGN!,” Estrada has already lost the battle for many people’s hearts and minds. It is a sad end for a leader who was elected to fight for the poor and dispossessed. Even still, there are people who remember that.

“Poor people support Erap,” said Christina Panoy, a barmaid. “I do. I voted for him.”

Other Filipinos are talking about street protests if he wins. And unlike Westerners who riot over hamburger corporations and the globalization of coffeehouses, Filipinos have been known to take to the streets over issues of national survival. In 1986, they forced Marcos and his wife, Imelda, to flee the nation, leaving a dish of caviar on the table and thousands of shoes in the closet.

People are saying something must happen. “We cannot all go to the United States,” said Mamaung. “Some of us have to stay and solve the problems.”

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