By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: September 24, 2007
MANILA: A few hours after an anti-graft court convicted former President Joseph Estrada of plunder, officials of the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo were already talking about the possibility of a pardon.
The officials said a pardon for Estrada, who was sentenced Sept. 11 to a maximum of 40 years in prison for receiving payoffs and kickbacks before his ouster from office, could heal the nation. “Why not?” Sergio Apostol, Arroyo’s chief legal adviser, said of a pardon on the day of the verdict.
Over the weekend, Arroyo made it known through her advisers that she was indeed considering a pardon. “I’m hoping that we can do it before Christmas,” Ronaldo Puno, a political adviser to Arroyo, told reporters Sunday.
But not everyone in the Philippines welcomes the possibility of a pardon. Some are concerned that it could send the wrong signal and offset what was gained with Estrada’s conviction: a strong message that the Philippine justice system does catch up with powerful lawbreakers.
“What could ever justify granting amnesty or pardon to one who shamelessly feasted on power and greed?” 15 private lawyers who assisted in Estrada’s prosecution asked in a statement issued last week. “What message shall that send to those who wield power now and in the future?”
“Reconciliation without justice is meaningless,” the statement read. “Political accommodations in the name of unity and reconciliation are a sham.”
Estrada, a former movie actor who became president in 1998 and was driven out of power in a military-backed civilian uprising in 2001, is still hugely popular and remains a potent force within the political opposition.
The Arroyo administration hopes not only to stop Estrada from questioning Arroyo’s legitimacy but to prevent him and his supporters from capitalizing on the corruption scandals Arroyo is facing, said Benito Lim, a political scientist at Ateneo de Manila University. These scandals, Lim said, could become a serious threat to Arroyo’s presidency.
Apostol, Arroyo’s lawyer, told The Associated Press, “Hopefully, if this pardon is granted, it will remove one cause of political tensions.”
A pardon, Lim said, would be a politically astute move by Arroyo, who had been Estrada’s vice president and succeeded him when public outrage over the corruption charges, as well as allegations of womanizing and drinking, forced him to step down. “The guilty verdict legitimized her mandate,” he said. “She will become magnanimous once she pardons Estrada. It’s just a matter of time.”
The public seems to favor a pardon. In a survey by the Social Weather Stations, a Manila polling institute, respondents overwhelmingly said Arroyo should pardon Estrada.
Analysts say she has no choice but to try to heal old wounds, especially at a time when she seems particularly vulnerable from scandal. Last week, her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, was again thrust into the political limelight when testimony at a Senate hearing linked him to a contract the government had signed with the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE.
A Filipino business owner testified that Jose Miguel Arroyo and Benjamin Abalos, an ally of the president who heads the election commission, had tried to get him to drop his bid for the contract, with Abalos offering him $10 million to do so. Arroyo, through his lawyer, denied any wrongdoing, while Abalos dismissed the charge as “ridiculous.”
The ZTE contract became so controversial that it has bumped Estrada’s conviction off the front pages of newspapers. On Saturday, Arroyo, in a move seen by her critics as an attempt to sabotage the Senate’s hearings on the scandal, ordered the deal suspended.
Military officials said Sunday that elements within the military were using the ZTE scandal to launch another “destabilization plot” against the government, which saw a coup attempt in 2003 and, according to the Arroyo administration, nipped another in the bud last year.
The scandal over the ZTE deal is only the latest in a series of corruption allegations against Arroyo’s administration to have been explored in Senate hearings in recent years, the most serious of which is the charge, backed by testimony and a widely circulated audio recording, that she rigged the 2004 elections. Arroyo’s opponents in Congress tried twice to impeach her over the charge but fell short of the necessary votes.
Attempts by the Senate to investigate that scandal and others were unsuccessful, largely because Arroyo, by executive order, prevented her officials from testifying in any congressional inquiry without her approval. Her Senate opponents tried to reopen the case this month, but her allies blocked the attempt.
The various scandals have taken a toll on Arroyo’s reputation; her trust ratings are dismal, far worse than Estrada’s. Analysts say that if Arroyo remains confrontational toward the Estrada camp, those sentiments could find expression in the streets.