International Papers

The Filipinos Get Putschy

In the Philippines, popular outrage at the Senate’s virtual acquittal of President Joseph Estrada prompted People Power 2.0: As angry citizens took to the streets, the armed forces and police withdrew their support for Estrada, and most of his Cabinet resigned, driving the Supreme Court to declare the presidency vacant and then to install his constitutionally mandated successor, Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Many papers emphasized the contrasts between former B-movie star Estrada and economist Arroyo, whose father Diosdado Macapagal governed the Philippines 1962-65. La Nación of Argentina suggested that this year’s version of people power represented “a struggle between the poor and the bourgeoisie” with the influence of the power elite and its institutions—particularly the Catholic Church—overwhelming Estrada, the idol of the underclass. Estrada was a poor student and a college dropout, who, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post claimed, “did not want to read the briefs and documents which are the regular staple of presidential work.” The Hong Kong iMail described Estrada as “a self-confessed drinker and gambler, who acknowledges having fathered at least 10 children by four different women.” Arroyo was educated in convents and in the United States—several stories reported that she was a classmate of Bill Clinton’s at Georgetown—holds a doctorate in economics, and is a devout Catholic who boasts the enthusiastic support of Manila’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Sin. Whereas the charismatic Estrada was known for his speeches, “delivered mainly in the vernacular with macho, take-no-prisoners rhetoric,” the iMail claimed she “often appears ill at ease before large crowds. … She is a wonkish academic.” While Estrada surrounded himself with ethnic Chinese businessmen, Arroyo is associated with “the country’s old-line Spanish business dynasties.” (According to the International Herald Tribune, “Arroyo’s supporters felt increasingly threatened by the Chinese businessmen and resented the privileged place they had gained in the Estrada administration.”)

There was a strong element of condescension in many of the assessments of Estrada. The SCMP said he “exploited the country’s entertainment culture, which had built him up as a hero of the oppressed based solely on his movie portrayal of such roles, not on his achievements,” and an editorial in the same paper suggested the “stunningly unqualified” Estrada “earned support from many of the nation’s poorest voters, who may have confused the man with the movie star who often portrayed heroes who helped the downtrodden.” The Hindu of India said that when he left office Estrada “arguably retained much of his popularity among the poor and gullible masses who had catapulted him to the highest office.”

The Daily Telegraph described the weekend’s events as “a very Filipino coup that came close to being an old-fashioned messy, military takeover.” The Sydney Morning Herald said that while “mass street demonstrations and what amounted to a bloodless mutiny by the armed forces and police are not generally recommended in textbooks on democracy,” since “Estrada had made it plain that he would not go unless he was pushed, direct action was the only viable option.” Britain’s Guardian made much of the high-tech aspects of the anti-Estrada mobilization: Most people heard about Arroyo’s swearing-in via mobile phone text messages, the same means that informed people about the protests days earlier: “It really was people power in action as there was no obvious leader to make the calls.”

An op-ed in the Manila Times opposed what it called the “January 17 coup d’etat,” finding it undemocratic. Referring to the former president’s landslide margin of more than 6 million votes in the 1998 elections, the op-ed noted, “Estrada’s vote is still undisputedly the largest in the mandate in Philippine history. Even granting that it may have been eroded by two and a half years of constant and deliberate sullying of Estrada by the oligarchy’s press. … The electoral vote, no matter how some people belittle it, is still the only thing that prevents precisely what the [people power] insurrections encourage—election by revolts and government by power and of power cliques.” Nevertheless, it should be remembered that in the 1998 elections Arroyo outpolled Estrada by 1.9 million votes (the positions are contested separately in the Philippines), beating his vice-presidential running mate by more than 7 million votes. A (female) columnist in the Philippine Inquirer noted that Arroyo “is the country’s second woman President, and the second President to be seated as a consequence of ‘People Power.’ … [P]erhaps, in this macho country, it takes “People Power” to have a woman installed as President.”

The Guardian suggested that Arroyo will come under pressure to prosecute Estrada for corruption in order to avoid the “mistakes of the past”: Former President Corazon Aquino lost the public trust when Ferdinand Marcos was allowed to go into exile in Hawaii, and the Philippines subsequently recouped only a fraction of the billions he was accused of stealing. Estrada has said he will stay in the country, though the South China Morning Post claimed, “As long as he is on Philippine soil, the Arroyo presidency cannot move on to the agenda of healing or consolidating its mandate because it will have to pay attention to what to do to Estrada.”

Congo line of succession: Joseph Kabila has been named the successor to his father, President Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated last Tuesday. The new leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo has spent most of his life abroad—growing up in Uganda and Tanzania and receiving his military education in China—and according to the Sunday Times, he is an Anglophone who does not speak Lingala, the main Congolese language, nor French, the language of the Belgian colonial past. The Financial Times said Joseph “lacks even the legitimacy of his father, who did at least topple a dictator” (Kabila père took over from Mobuto Sese Seko in 1997). Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported there were complaints in DRC that putting the former leader’s son in charge “was tantamount to making Congo a monarchy.” La Nación of Argentina carried an interview with François Lumumba, the son of the country’s independence leader who was assassinated almost exactly 40 years ago. Lumumba, who is in exile in Texas, said he didn’t expect Joseph’s rule to last more than a month or two “because he has neither military nor political experience.” (Explaining the complex situation in DRC was a challenge for most papers; Canada’s National Post, which last August published an excellent package of stories about the region, provided a good summary of the conflict.)

Mad bulls: El País of Spain reported that after a novilla (a young bull used in “apprentice” bull fights) was found to be carrying “mad cow” disease, new rules may be implemented banning the consumption of bulls killed in the ring. More than 11,000 bulls are “sacrificed” in the 2,000 or so Spanish bullfights each season. The meat is considered a delicacy, but the new rules would require the animals to be burned as soon as they leave the ring.