President down

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: New leader offers Philippines economic restoration and honest government.

January 26, 2001

NO ONE had more fun being president than Joseph Estrada. He spent his 31 months as the immensely popular elected leader of the Philippines drinking, gambling, womanizing and taking bribes.

He was no tyrant, but rather an incompetent slob -- too undisciplined and shallow to run the affairs of 80 million people.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who ascended to the vacated presidency on Saturday, holds a doctorate in economics, a mandate as elected vice president and priorities to restore the economy and body politic.

The daughter of a venerated president, married to the scion of a dominant business family, she is widely considered too rich, devout and serious to steal anything.

But her first need is to ensure legitimacy. There was an undercurrent of a "soft coup" that brought her to power on the strength of military planning, Cabinet desertion of the president and indignant mobs in the street.

These protesters were from the middle classes, summoned by the Filipino craze for text messaging on cell phones. Though impressive, the crowds were not as large as those that toppled the tyrant Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Mr. Estrada had been declining in public esteem since a provincial governor admitted in October paying him millions in illegal gambling payoffs and skimmed tobacco taxes. Impeached by the House of Representatives, he was about to be removed from office until the tame Senate voted 11-10 not to admit the key evidence. Public protest erupted, deposing him.

The way to guarantee Ms. Macapagal-Arroyo's legitimacy against any attempted return by the disgraced former president would be to complete the impeachment trial, with the evidence, and to add a criminal trial for plundering.

The new president's undoubted good intentions do not ensure success. She is in debt to the military and other power groups that deserted Mr. Estrada, a former movie star who remains popular with the poor.

Four decades ago, the Philippines was the most fortunate Asian country after Japan, poised to lead the coming economic miracle. Thanks to failed politics and government, it did not.

But if Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo can deliver on her promises, the Philippines should take its place in the forefront of the coming Asian economic revival.

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