The Rehabilitation of Erap Estrada

Driven from the Philippine presidency by elite-directed street protests in 2001 amid charges of massive corruption, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, now 78 years old, has steadily been rehabilitating his image as Mayor of Manila, and as a national political powerhouse by endorsing Grace Poe for the 2016 presidency.

Public forgiveness for rogues is a mark of Filipino politics. But Estrada, who was accused of rifling the public treasury of US$80 million while in office, has improved his standing by driving the traffic-choked, polluted central city from No. 8 to No. 1 in national rankings by the National Competitiveness Council of the Philippines on economic dynamism, infrastructure and government efficiency. Metro Manila derives its name from Manila proper.

Estrada remains the wealthiest mayor in the Philippines as of 2013 with P242.834 million (US$5.24 million) in reported net worth. He has yet to fully return what has been considered as ill-gotten assets. The government, according to a report by the Rappler news site, has yet to collect P417 million from him of a forfeited P735 million.

Estrada inherited P4.4 billion (US$94,960,000) in municipal debt when he started his term in 2013. In his State of the City Address delivered in 2014, he said Manila faced unpaid electricity bills worth P630 million and another P58 million in unsettled water bills. The city had P684 million in unpaid taxes. He has wiped out that debt.

Estrada has poured funds in improving the roads and public buildings of the capital – which still has a long way to go before it can join the ranks of livable cities. “I oversaw the repair of 88 roads,” he said on March 2 before a crowd of Manileños from the city’s six districts.

He has proven his renewed political clout not only by endorsing Poe but persuading her to take Francis “Chiz” Escudero, 47, an Estrada ally, as her vice presidential running mate and raising concerns among reformers as to just much how reform Poe has in mind if she wins the presidency.

At the rally attended by an enthusiastic throng, Estrada presented Poe with a white wristband, a symbol of joining forces. He spoke emotionally of her adoptive father, actor Fernando Poe Jr., who died shortly after losing the 2004 election to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in what was widely viewed as a tainted poll.

“This is important,” the mayor said as he placed the wristband on Poe. Estrada, who rose from being the mayor of another city in Metro Manila, San Juan, in 1969 to the presidency in 1998, used orange in his campaigns. White is the color of Poe's campaign.

“I knew you thought long and hard before you made this decision,” Poe told Estrada as she stood before his constituents. “Maybe you chose me because you didn’t want my father’s ghost to haunt you,” she jested, but this was a serious matter for the current front-runner in presidential polls.

Given the polarizing effect of an endorsement by a man many see as an unreformed if lovable political scoundrel, it remains to be seen if Erap’s nod holds weight for Poe’s presidential bid.

Among the crowd who attended the proclamation rally, there appeared little doubt. The crowd roared “Lights! Lights!” when asked what else the “president-mayor” has done during his tenure. Estrada switched on solar lamps to light the city’s streets in 2014, allotting P2.2 billion for 10,000 units.

Estrada said in his state of the city address that he had challenged the heads of the revenue-generating offices to increase collections by not less than 20 percent over revenues in 2013.

“Our total revenues for my first six months as mayor increased by 16 percent or by P345 million,” he said. “Revenues from business taxes increased by 38 percent or by P201 million, from real property taxes by 46 percent and from business permit fees by 60 percent or by P5.7 million.”

The city council also enacted ordinances which paved the way for updating property market values, a reform lauded by the Department of Finance.

Estrada was also instrumental in easing tensions between Manila and Hong Kong when he flew to the territory in 2013 to apologize for the hostage attacks at the Quirino Grandstand in 2010, which resulted in the killing of eight Hong Kong tourists.

“Two resolutions were approved to address the Luneta hostage-taking incident,” he said. “We have now formally put closure to this problem and paved the way for better relations between Hong Kong and Manila.”

FPJ and the masses

Whether he will be tagged as a plunderer or president-mayor, however, Estrada still has a hold over voters from so-called D-E classes, the lower socioeconomic classes, which comprise a sizable chunk of the electorate.

“Erap still has the solid support of the D-E income class, said Ian Jason Hecita, a political science professor from De La Salle University. “They still believe that the ouster and allegations of corruption in 2001 were part of an elitist conspiracy to topple a pro-masses/poor president,”

“Erap for the masses,” the slogan that defined his presidential campaign in 1998, showed its power again in 2010, when Estrada, amid a legal row questioning the constitutionality of his run, emerged with the second-highest vote total (9.48 million) in the presidential elections won by President Benigno Aquino III.

In 2013, Estrada narrowly beat incumbent Alfredo Lim for mayor with 342,254 votes.

Poe already has a good hold on D-E voters, with the latest Pulse Asia survey showing that 29 percent of them will vote for her in the elections this May.

Nicole Curato, a sociologist and a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Australian National University, said it will be tough to quantify whether Estrada’s “magic” will actually rub off on Poe. “Surveys and various empirical studies reveal that endorsements by a respected person or leader matter less when people make decisions. It will be very difficult to establish how Estrada's endorsement of Poe automatically translates to votes,” she said.

She also pointed out that Estrada’s endorsement positions Poe again the torchbearer for her adoptive father, the opposite image of what her platform portrays her to be – a candidate with her own, individual accomplishments and qualifications.

“The fascinating angle of Erap's endorsement to Poe is how this once again underscores the relationship of FPJ's legacy to Poe's candidacy,” Curato said. "It can be noticed that in the last two presidential debates, Senator Poe has not once mentioned FPJ. Her platform is also intended to build on her credentials as an individual. Estrada's endorsement returns the narrative back to FPJ's perceived unfinished business.”

Will this work for Poe or boomerang against her?

There is still a little over than a month left before May elections. The polls will indicate if Estrada is still the kingmaker that he is appears to be, or as Aceron pointed out – is just somebody who “endorses who is winnable or popular. That makes his endorsement look powerful.”