A leader or a lagger? Joseph Estrada: Philippines' third popularly elected president faces economic challenges others didn't.

June 01, 1998

HE LOOKS like the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time, but that's democracy. Vice President Joseph Estrada, elected to a six-year term as president of the Philippines, is the beneficiary of the achievements of the past two presidents.

Corazon Aquino crusaded for democracy, won election and put it in place. Gen. Fidel Ramos sympathized with democracy campaigners and prevented a coup. As president, he jump-started the economy and accepted a one-term limit. Now, thanks to them, the people could choose Mr. Estrada.

His political roots and crony-ships are in the discarded Marcos dictatorship that fell a dozen years ago. As vice president, he was no ally of Mr. Ramos. His own vice president-elect, Sen. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is a rival.

The times call for building on the Philippines' recent economic growth and comparatively mild case of "Asian flu." Mr. Estrada admits to a dim grasp of economics. Where Mr. Ramos was a workaholic, Mr. Estrada is reputedly lazy. He is a rabble-rouser for the poor, one secret of his popularity. But his buddies are super-rich entrepreneurs, and he has no program to match his rhetoric.

His other secret is his past life as a movie star, usually the lead in low-budget action films made for the Philippines' market. In that life he was also a drunken playboy, a quality that does not endear him to the Philippines' respected religious leader, Cardinal Jaime Sin.

Through the years, it has been an embarrassment that the Philippines, as U.S. protege, was not having the economic success of Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea or even Thailand and Indonesia. Then, when most of the others fell into bank failures and plummeting currencies, the Philippines suffered less. Now, with sound management, it can join the top ranks and reward its people; but with a reversion to corrupt crony-capitalism, it cannot.

Mr. Estrada has just won his greatest role. He owes it to the Filipinos who gave it to him not to blow it.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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