In aftermath of Erap verdict, a focus on Arroyo

Sep. 24, 2007


MANILA — Six years ago, Senator Teofisto Guingona stood at the lectern of the Philippine Senate and accused then president Joseph Estrada of corruption. Like the French novelist Emile Zola’s ”J’Accuse!” open letter in the Dreyfus Affair, the senator’s impassioned ”I, Accuse!”speech, which reflected the outrage many Filipinos felt against what looked like an increasingly corrupt regime, had a huge impact. It drove more people to the streets to protest against Estrada and emboldened senators to impeach him. Four months later, Estrada was ousted in a “people power” uprising.

But months before Sept. 11, the day an anti-graft court handed down a verdict finding Estrada guilty of the crime of plunder for allegedly taking kickbacks and payoffs, Guingona had had a change of heart. Estrada, he said in July, had suffered enough and should be freed. ”He is a man who has found a new light and a new life,” Guingona said. ”He is now a new man.”

When pressed by journalists to explain this baffling turnaround by the respected politician who is one of the country’s well-known civil libertarians and nationalists, Guingona said he thought attention should now be given on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the many allegations of corruptions that have hounded her administration.

Guingona is certainly not alone in that belief. In fact, the view that Estrada’s conviction now makes it imperative to go after Arroyo and her friends because her regime is allegedly worse than Estrada was a recurrent theme in the reactions to the verdict, in which Estrada was sentenced to ”reclusion perpetua,” or a maximum of 40 years in prison.

It is ironic, indeed, that the Arroyo administration, which seemed to have successfully upheld the rule of law and, by doing so, sent a strong signal that it is serious in fighting corruption, is now being regarded as if it were the one on trial. But, according to analysts and critics, there is basis for all this.

The Estrada verdict should serve as a ”stern warning” against the current administration ”who may end up with the same fate because their crimes are far, far worse than the ones Estrada was convicted of,” said Carol Araullo, chairperson of Bayan, the leftist bloc that
organized many of the demonstrations against Estrada and Arroyo.

Senator Aquilino Pimentel, an Arroyo critic, said Thursday last week ”the government must now show that it didn’t single out Estrada. Other cases of plunder involving administration officials should now follow.”

Unless Arroyo resolves the scandals hounding her, said Senator Francisco Pangilinan, Estrada’s conviction will ”cast a very long and dark shadow” on her administration.

Benito Lim, a political scientist at the Ateneo de Manila University, said he expected this kind of reaction. ”Arroyo’s critics will now start comparing amounts,” he said. ”And the crucial consequence of this is that the verdict will strengthen the movement against Arroyo because of all the unresolved allegations of corruption against her,” Lim said in an interview.

Nothing perhaps underscored this point than the testimony in the senate last week by Jose de Venecia 3rd, a businessman, who accused Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel, and the head of the elections commission, Benjamin Abalos, of interceding on behalf of ZTE Corp., a Chinese telecommunications company that cornered a $329-million contract to build the government’s broadband network project. According to de Venecia, the contract was overpriced by 100 percent because of kickbacks that went to Abalos, a key Arroyo ally who had been accused of having had a hand in the 2004 elections cheating that favored the president.

Apart from the ZTE deal, other corruption scandals all disclosed in separate Senate hearings in the past several years — included the alleged misuse of more than 700-million pesos of agriculture funds to buy votes during the 2004 elections; the alleged money laundering by Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, of campaign funds and contributions; the alleged payoff received by Arroyo’s former justice secretary, Hernando Perez, in a $470-million energy with an Argentine company; and Arroyo’s alleged close relationship with Bong Pineda, an alleged gambling lord from the president’s hometown in Pampanga.

But at the heart of Arroyo’s troubles is the allegation, backed by testimony and a controversial audio recording, that she cheated in the 2004 elections. Arroyo’s opponents in Congress twice attempted to impeach her for this but failed because they didn’t have the numbers.

Attempts by the Senate to investigate this scandal and the others were unsuccessful, largely because Arroyo, through an executive order, prevented her officials from testifying in any congressional probe without her approval.

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