Estrada’s Conviction Not Necessarily a Victory for Arroyo

Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada is now officially a convict. The country’s anti-graft court on September 12 found the one-time actor and hero to the poor guilty of plunder and sentenced him to up to 40 years in prison, marking the first time in Philippine history that a former president has been convicted of a criminal charge.

The verdict has both positive and negative implications for President Gloria Arroyo, whose legitimacy as president after Estrada’s 2001 has long been in question. Political analysts say that Arroyo shouldn’t be rejoicing just yet. The verdict may work in her favor now, with the peso strengthening and the stock market cheering the relatively peaceful reaction to Estrada judicial demise, but the long-term impact of the decision may not be as rosy. For the first time, it means anybody, including Arroyo, could wind up in court.

In any case, in true Philippine fashion, Estrada remains detained “until further notice” not in prison but in his luxurious rest house, while he appeals the sentence. It is questionable when, if ever, he would actually see the inside of a jail. Spared images of the still-popular Estrada inside a prison cell, he will fade from the headlines in a few days, thus there’s little worry about the large-scale protests that had authorities concerned.

By many accounts, the verdict – delivered in a short and swift manner – is a victory for those Filipinos, led by church and business leaders, who ousted Estrada from office through a brief military-backed people power uprising seven years ago.

“It is a victory for the rule of law,” says Marites Vitug, editor of Manila’s Newsbreak magazine. “It sends a message that no politician or leader is above the law.”

Estrada was accused of stealing P4 billion (US$42.6 million) from public funds. The figure includes about P545 million in bribes from illegal gambling operations, misappropriating P130 million from tobacco taxes, gaining P189.7 million from stock manipulation, and maintaining over P3 billion in ill-gotten wealth in a bank account under a fictitious name. He was also charged with perjury for allegedly filing a false statement of assets, liabilities and net worth in 1999.

The court found him guilty of plunder based on two counts – receiving bribes from illegal gambling operations and stock manipulation – but acquitted him of perjury charges. While they allowed him to continue to be detained in his rest house, the court ordered the forfeiture of over P700 million worth of Estrada's bank accounts and real estate property.

His son and co-accused, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, and their lawyer Eduardo Serapio, were acquitted. The opposition says this shows that the elder Estrada was the primary target of what they are calling a political decision, while the anti-Estrada camp says that evidence against the two was simply not strong enough. Proof of the latter is how the Estrada scion was allowed out on bail by the courts years ago.

“It is not yet a landmark decision since it will still go up to the Supreme Court. But it’s a milestone at this point,” explains Allen Surla, a political analyst from De La Salle University.

He said Estrada’s backers realized this. “Estrada’s strategists somewhat expected this decision so they did not mobilize yet,” he says, offering an explanation for the paltry group of Estrada loyalists who went to the streets to show their support. Only a few thousand – less than the number of policemen and soldiers deployed – showed up.

“The Supreme Court decision will be the real landmark,” he says. Thus, while Surla says that there’s only a slim chance for Estrada to get a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, the country might see larger protests around that time.

Newsbreak’s Vitug, on the other hand, believes that the court allowing Estrada to remain in his rest house lessened the emotional impact of the guilty verdict among his supporters.

Protests, though, are the least of Arroyo’s concerns. Landmark decision or not, the anti-graft court’s verdict created a precedent. The country can now go after other politicians suspected of graft and corruption – a long list that includes Arroyo herself.

“The law should be evenly applied and should not single out Estrada,” says Vitug. The decision, she says, will put the spotlight back on unresolved corruption charges against Arroyo and her family, including a case where her husband is the main player.

Political analyst Earl Parreno agrees. The opposition, he says, will not take this decision sitting down and will use it to turn the heat up on Arroyo. “The decision would have made more of an impact if the Arroyo administration was not tainted with the same charges brought up against Estrada,” he says. “If it was former President Cory Aquino convicting former President Ferdinand Marcos, it would have been a very good message. But a pot calling the kettle black has little impact.”

The analysts agree that Estrada still has a trump card to play. If the Supreme Court doesn’t decide on his appeal before 2010, regardless of whether the new administration is from the opposition or not, there’s a bigger chance of a reversal because the decision will have less political meaning.

And whether the Supreme Court rules in favor of Estrada or not, its decision will not matter to Arroyo anymore. It’s the September 12, 2007 decision that will, because she could be next.