Philippine President Joseph Estrada has resigned. His term in office has been a continuous trial for the country. His decision to step down is correct, if not overdue. His successor, former Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, must now clean up the mess Mr. Estrada has left for the Philippines.
Mr. Estrada, a former film star, had a tempestuous term in office. He claimed the presidency 32 months ago, after winning the largest-even majority in a presidential election. He enjoyed incredible popularity among the poorest Filipinos, for whom there was no difference between his screen image as a feisty underdog and protector of the downtrodden and the politician. They continued to support him throughout this trial.
Mr. Estrada’s downfall began in October, when Provincial Governor Luis Singson, a former ally of the president, said he gave Mr. Estrada over 530 million pesos ($11.2 million) in bribes from illegal gambling syndicates. He also accused the president of diverting $3 million in excise funds for his own use. Mr. Estrada had been dogged by corruption charges throughout his term, but this was the first time that anyone offered proof.
Despite his denials, the Philippines House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr. Estrada, and sent the case to the senate for a trial. The country — and the world — has been spellbound by testimony about the use of secret bank accounts, influence peddling and insider trading at the highest levels of government. Senators, judges and witnesses told of receiving death threats. On New Year’s Eve, five bombs exploded in Manila, claiming 22 lives and injuring more than 120 others. The identity and motives of the bombers are still unknown.
The climax came last week, when senators aligned with the president voted not to examine bank records allegedly linking Mr. Estrada to 3.3 billion pesos ($66 million) in unexplained wealth. The prosecutors and the presiding judge then resigned, saying the trial had been rigged and the proceedings were a charade.
Mass protests followed; hundreds of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets and Mr. Estrada was denounced by his predecessors, Mrs. Corazon Aquino and Mr. Fidel Ramos, as well as Jaime Cardinal Sin, a powerful force in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. During the demonstrations former military leaders called on the president to step down and hinted at a coup to replace him. More people left his Cabinet and the military announced that it would no longer support the government.
Mr. Estrada then began negotiations over his fate, reportedly holding out for amnesty and a promise that he could keep some of his wealth. He resigned Saturday afternoon after the supreme court declared the office vacant for lack of support. Mrs. Arroyo then took the oath of office.
In many ways, this sad outcome is no surprise. Mr. Estrada’s habits and style of governing were well-known. The president was no detail man, and had little respect for the formal institutions of governance. Insiders occasionally let slip details of his “kitchen Cabinet,” the late-night drinking sessions and decision-making. He had been dogged by charges of cronyism and influence peddling, but the proof was never there. Indeed, Mr. Singson came forward only after he lost the gambling concession in his province.
Now, Mrs. Arroyo, the daughter of a former president, takes office. Her first task is healing the divisions in her country and restoring the country’s international credibility. Throughout the Estrada trial — during his entire term in office — the Philippine currency and the stock market plunged, investors pulled out of the country and the economy has gone into a tailspin.
Although the challenges are daunting, they are not impossible to surmount. Long considered “the sick man of Asia,” the Philippines made remarkable progress under Mr. Ramos. The country emerged from the Asia financial crisis of 1998 in relatively good condition, and many investors began to see the Philippines in a new light. Mr. Estrada undid much of the good work.
To get the country back on track, the new government must restore the rule of law. The cronyism and backroom deals that typified Mr. Estrada’s administration must end. Unfortunately, that sort of deal making — and the relationships that make them possible — has a long history in the country; Mr. Estrada was only the most egregious practitioner of that sort of cronyism. Mrs. Arroyo has a good reputation; she could well be the leader the country needs. And optimists can point to the Estrada trial — the first of its kind in Asia — as proof that there is reason to have hope for the future.
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