Monday, January 21, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Erap Tragedy

It is an opportune time to revisit the lessons of EDSA 2 given the aggressive stance of former president Estrada's to revive his political career by running for the mayoral race of Manila City in May 2013 elections. The Laquian's account of their first hand experience with the Estrada administration captures the reasons behind the fall of the ill-fated president. In less than 2 years, Estrada squandered the people's trust. Just like Marcos, he spent his time amassing wealth and strengthening his relations with his multiple families and cronies. EDSA 2, although later discredited by former Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's numerous scandals, salvaged the country from the pits of demoralization.

The 10-chapter volume is a chronicle of the short-lived service of the Laquians as advisers to the president. Aprodicio Laquian served as the chief of staff but was unduly relieved from office due to what he considered as "irresponsible statements". He apologized for the following remarks he made during the Manila Overseas Press Club on March 2000.[1]

  • ''Now, another responsibility that I am supposed to have is to help the President's time management. That, to me, is almost mission impossible because the President is used to be the superstar. He is the only superstar in the Palace. In fact one time I told him: Mr. President may naghihintay. He told me: the President is always on time, the guests are early. So ano magagawa mo . . . we try to organize this day, and this night and this morning and so on. Whether he's . . . sleepy because he was with other friends . . ."
  • ''Some people are wondering: You know, Rod Laquian and his wife are entitled to socialized housing. Why are they staying in Arlegui? I tell you, so that we can be available to the President 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's not unusual to get a phone call from the Palace at two in the morning and he says '. . . kailangan ito dito' and you go." 
  • "It is not unusual to be in the Ang Pangulo, the presidential yacht, and you know feeling so good you know may sarili kaming kuwarto doon sa aming pagtulog but three o'clock in the morning kumanta ka daw ''Maalaala Mo Kaya.'' 
  • ''It's the best thing...at four o'clock in the morning I'm the only sober person. . .and if this is in Canada I will be the designated driver. I will be the one taking them to their beds and so on. So, at least if there is the one person who is sober in the room who would be able to take all of these things that were signed and then hide them in my record book, then the decision-making will probably be -- in the beautiful light of the morning --- be very rational.''
Prod clarified that he never saw  the president drunk and he sincerely delivered his public apology and tendered his "irrevocable resignation". This act confirmed the man's commitment to integrity and delicadeza. He unintentionally (but factually) sullied the name of the president. Estrada found it easy to ease him out from office mainly because he was just a "spare tire", a  product of political accommodation. The Laquians were personally recommended by Dr. Raul De Guzman, Erap's brother-in-law and his presidential adviser on development and administration, to help the office of the president. Prod, however, was given an office (chief of staff) which overlaps with the functions of the Executive Secretary (Ronaldo Zamora) and the Presidential Management Staff (Lenny de Jesus)

The first two chapters highlight the rise to power of the charismatic president (Champion of the Poor and The People's Court). The Estrada administration became so overconfident due to massive popular support.  It overestimated the people's willingness to support unpopular policies. Erap failed that much because he presented himself as a leader who can deliver that much. Filipinos got frustrated over his explicit promises ("walang kama-kamag-anak, walang kaibi-kaibigan")  not to be corrupt. Lo and behold, the promising inaugural speech turned out to be a movie script. The people believed the president but he violated their trust big time.

The Role of Political Culture
The authors' academic character makes it essential to have a clear grasp of the political culture of the country and how it impinges on the leadership predilections of Erap. The fall of his administration should be situated within the large political and cultural context of the country. Politicians in the country exhibit fatalistic tendencies, always desire to save "face" and would give primacy to the interests of their families, clans and factions. The wide gap between  the rich and the poor resulted in the weak implementation of the rule of law, double standard of justice and the strong military role in the country's political life. The country's political culture augur well for the rise of leaders like Estrada.

There is a need to distinguish the ideal politics (no-nonsense leadership) from the elitist, hard-boiled model which Erap embraced. The president is categorized as a positive-passive leader who is compliant and easily manipulated due to strong need to be loved and admired. The tremendous powers and prerogative of the presidency were not widely used by Erap which resulted in disarrayed government programs. Spin doctors were hired to establish his reputation and deodorize the negative news hurled against his office. He heeded to the whispered counsel (bulong) of his cronies who, in one way or another, impinged on his policies.

The authors attributed to the troika of "Ms" the downfall of the regime: money, mistresses and mansions. The role of the watchdog media helped exposed the veiled luxurious lifestyle of the president. Laquians consider this incongruent to the pro-poor rhetoric of the Estrada presidency. They witnessed the opulent lifestyle of the president from the use of his official yacht, Ang Pangulo, to the decoration of his Malacanang residence.

Psychological Underpinnings (from San Juan to Malacanang)
Chapter 4 presents an in-depth look at the pyschological rationale of the president's leadership style, which can be gleaned from his rebellious childhood, lavish stardom and political stint from being San Juan Mayor up to his entry to Malacanang. The young Estrada found it difficult to compete against his elder brothers, Paula and Emilio, and his elder sisters, Pilarica and Patrocinio. Erap's brothers were all handsome and fair-skinned mestizons while the ladies were very religious, well-behaved and got good academic grades. An interview with the president's close relatives and friends revealed that he identified himself with the "masa" because of his failure to get close to his immediate family. Erap found his identity and sense of self in the company of poor boys from a slum area in San Juan. His exposure to gang wars and urban poor rumble made him as a "toughie".

Erap was considered by his parents as the "black sheep" of the clan due to several brawls he got involved into (including his fight with an American student at the Ateneo boys toilet). His insecurities led him to enter the showbiz industry for fame and fortune. His mother prohibited him from using the Ejercito family name for fear of another disgrace. Hence, the screen name "Joseph Estrada" was popularized--the man who lived a lifestyle that involved heavy drinking, gambling and womanizing. This observation is complemented by interesting trivias offered by the authors. The president had an insatiable fetish for coats and jackets. He did not mind spending a lot of money for one he fancied. Erap's signature wristband covers a scar from samurai wound he got in a movie sword fight. When former president Marcos asked him what support he would like to have for the people of San Juan City (as a political gratis), Erap requested for a parcel of land in Taytay where he relocated many San Juan squatter residents. For some psychologists, Erap was considered bright and has a phenomenal ability to remember names, backgrounds and specific events. He, however, has a low capacity to analyze problem in an "objective, systematic and rational manner" (pp. 107).

The President and the Snake Pit
Chapters 5 and 6 detonate the political bombshells. They present the complex and never-before-seen character of the "snake pit", that is, Malacanang. It is not unusual for Prod to have at most 4 hours sleep due to the demands of his job---from reading daily newspapers to fixing the president's schedule. He likewise witnessed the jarring view of how Erap treated his subordinates in a domineering and bullying way. This trained Erap's secretaries to be "ultra-sensitive" to his moods. He is known to "baptize" people with crude and hurting names (i.e. Kalbo for baldy, Pandak for short one and BIR (Babaeng Inurungan ng Regla for old maids). One major liability was Erap's aggressive decision-making. His ego and pride took control of him. He stopped listening to his well-meaning advisers who truly desired him to pursue good governance.

Prod once said that living in a "snake pit" would make him as a "snake charmer." His efforts to get the house in order failed when he clashed with the PMS chief, Lenny de Jesus, also called as the Dragon (Crying) Lady of the palace. At many times, he was not comfortable with the micro-management practices (completed staff work) of Leny--from determining who will ride the presidential plane up to making scripts for cabinet meetings. The President acted as a mere "talking head" in these sessions. Several controversies were hurled against the Laquian couple including the accusation that they were trying to establish their sub-kingdom in the palace that could undermine the job of Rod Reyes, the Press Secretary and  the PMS chief.

Estrada may have possessed the patriotism and nationalism that the Filipino people needed during the turbulent years of the country's history. Nonetheless, his political experience as a city mayor, senator and Vice-President never provided him enough technical know-how to lead the country (pp. 102-103). He is known to despise long speeches and meetings. He gets easily bored with details of a plan. He rarely participated in serious intellectual discussion. Erap behaved and spoke like your normal urban poor guy with his "green jokes" and under the belt, sexist remarks. He lacked the internal moral compass to be a national symbol of good values. His inability to control his appetites proved to be a liability. Erap was a self-indulging man who loved to eat high-cholesterol foods (i.e. lechon and pochero). He had poor work habits and manifested aversion to long hour is focused, serious work. His sexual appetite was legendary as attested by his numerous mistresses and dozen children. The authors mentioned in one instance, how Loi Ejercito remained calm and civil despite the abusive remarks of her husband. They praised Loi for her temperance for being the "emotional punching bag" of the president.

The President never had a coherent program of governance for the first 100 days. Much of time were spent appointing people to more than 6,000 positions in the government and renovation of infrastructures to be used by the chief executive.  The president had "only the vaguest notion of what he wanted to do." (pp. 137). He hired more than 30 presidential assistants with full-time salaries, more than 20 consultants and many informal "calling card" presidential assistants. All of them were appointed due to political backers who helped Estrada win the 1998 elections.

Estrada was notorious for being tardy in gracing important meetings. His mood swings got the better of him. Hence, his cabinet secretaries were always on their toes for any last minute changes in his itinerary (i.e. deliver the speech of president). Malacanang would always argue that the "president was never late, the people were early." He was not given enough honeymoon period by the media. From day one, he was lambasted by the press. Consequently, Erap retaliated by commanding his friends to withdraw their advertisements from broadsheets which magnified his political incompetence (i.e. Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times). The move by the Office of Executive Secretary to amend the ways of the "undisciplined" leader came too late and was overtaken by  the actions of a critical mass of people who desired Estrada to vacate Malacanang.

Overall, the president's leadership style can be summarized as follows (pp. 168-169): 1) He lacked an overall direction in his administration; 2) He disdained the day-to-day tasks of running a government; 3) He was not a consultative decision-maker; 4) He made decisions with incomplete information, he often made mistakes; 5) Erap mixed official and personal affairs in his public decision-making; and 5) He failed to use the considerable professional and technical resources in PMS, the Office of the Executive Secretary and other units inside Malacanang to assist him.

Estrada never fully understood his role as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He found it difficult to identify with the diciplined and polished character of the military. Erap was not fond of the military and the "generals did not like him" (pp. 212). The personal decision-making of the president did not augur well to the objective, institutional rules of the institution. This could be a reason why General Angelo Reyes, then AFP Chief of Staff, easily declared, during EDSA 2, his withdrawal of support to the president, justifying his action as mere compliance to Article 2, section 3 of the Constitution, which states that the military should protect the state and its people.

The "Barkada" Factor
Before leaving for Canada, Prod had a last word for the president: "Bayad na po kayo" referring to his constant admonition to the president to stop giving favors to his cronies and sycophants (sipsip). During the president's inaugural address, the couple was requested by Erap's brother and mother to help the president keep away from the bad influence of his political and business peers. But for the Laquians, it was next to impossible to carry out the task mainly because of Estrada's sensitivity and volatile temperament whenever people talk ill of his friends. In a country where political leaders protect their family's interest, Erap was an exponential and classic example since he has more than one family.

Several political actors competed for the ears of the president. Basically, he nurtured five groups--his bosom buddies (i.e. FPJ, Reli German and Ducky Paredes), Chinoy business cronies (i.e. Atong Ang, Lucio Tan, Mark Jimenez), political and religious allies (i.e. Maceda, Angara, Velarde of El Shaddai), technocrats of his administration (i.e. Pardo of DTI, Diokno and Medalla of UP School of Economics) and family members. Due to divergent interests, political clashes are normal among the president's men, especially between Ronaldo Zamora (Executive Secretary) and Robert Aventajado, Erap's kumpadre and mobilizer for JEEP, the president's link to civil society organizations.  The term "midnight cabinet" was coined, which later surfaced in the media because of the stubborn habit of president's allies and close friends to visit Malacanang at the wee hours of the night. Of all the groups, it was the technocrat circle which truly desired to help the president in his pro-poor programs.

Of Poverty and Civil Society
Chapter 8 provides a good scan of poverty studies in  the country (pp. 229-240). The poor in urban centers and the countryside comprised the bulk of votes which catapulted Erap into power. Relationship of the president with the Philippine Left, however, proved to be adversarial. Communists considered Erap as a stooge of the Americans and somehow linked him to the former dictator. Not surprisingly, the cultural elites never supported the president who they considered as an intellectually-challenged buffoon. Although Erap presented himself as pro-market at the start of his administration, the Makati Business Club aligned themselves against him due to his proclivity to pursue pro-poor, anti-business programs. As for his relationship with the Catholic Church, Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin openly condemned Erap's womanizing and gambling activities. Monsignor Pedro Quitoria of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said in a statement that "If you cannot manage your personal life, how can you manage the life of a country?"

Chapter 9 presents the recent literature on the civil society organizations in the country (pp. 263-278). This is juxtaposed with Estrada's JEEP (Justice, Economy, Environment and Peace) Program headed by Aventajado. The initiative attracted former Left-wing personalities and intellectuals like Edicio dela Torre, Dodong Nemenzo, Karina Constantino-David, Renato Constantino Jr. and Leonor Briones. But the  Estrada-civil society affair was cut short due to several controversies (i.e. Coco Levy Fund). Most notable of all was the decision of some 3,000 member organizations belonging to CODE-NGO, the National Peace Conference, and the Women's Action Network for Development (WAND) to distance themselves from the administration, due to mass-scale corruption and failure of Malacanang to deliver basic social services to the poor.

A Must-Read for the Younger Generation
The volume's narratives are sincere, straightforward and compassionate. Although the Laquians highlight the disturbing character of the former president, they are also quick to provide a caveat--that Estrada is not bad to the core. He was just unable to control the external pressures which derailed his leadership. Nonetheless, the final accountability belongs to him. The authors write:

"There are many reasons for Erap's downfall. But the bottom line was that he just didn't have  the capabilities and discipline demanded by the Philippine presidency.  He could have the best minds in the country to assist him but he chose to listen to the wrong people instead." (pp. 128)

Several lessons can be derived from this political tragedy (pp. 312-316): 1) Flagrant immorality and lifestyle excesses are not acceptable to the Filipino people; 2) Popularity and celebrity status are not bases for good leadership; 3) Greater public awareness of graft and corruption is necessary to ensure accountability of public officials; 4) The politicized role of the military is a threat to democratic life and 5)The Philippines will continue to be mired in elite and traditional politics despite civil society efforts.

Erap was a WYSWYG (What You See is What You Get) president.  The "masa" loved him because of his natural transparency. On the contrary, he is one of the biggest disappointments in Philippine political life because he lived a double life, "rivaling, in the amount of lies unearthed, the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship" (pp. 115). Machiavelli could have advised Erap to voluntarily relinquish his position mainly because "fortuna" was not kind to him. Erap attempted to hold on to power. Up to now, he never admitted that he violated the trust of the people. History is summoned to show that the "masa" never committed a mistake electing him into office (because they trusted him) and likewise, never went wrong when they decided to get rid of him from office (because Erap failed them).

As an old adage declares, "Old people die. Young people forget." Filipinos are known to have high tolerance of public misconduct and corruption. May the painful lessons of the Estrada administration and EDSA 2 be not relegated to trash bin of Philippine history. The volume may be misconstrued as a "biased" work of a disgruntled academic. EDSA 2, however, vindicated the Laquian couple. The book forewarns the younger generation of  the long-term consequences of electing an incompetent president who is not only prone to lackadaisical performance but can also be swayed by personal loyalties and friendships.




[1] Vanzi, Sol Jose. 2000. Transcript of Remarks which cost Laquian his job. Available at  http://www.newsflash.org/2000/03/pe/pe001083.htm (accessed January 20, 2013)

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