Erap and EDSA 3: Myths and Beyond


Give me your wretched poor…Yes give them to me and I will keep them wretched and poor, but will perform the miracle of making them think they are affluent and well. Yes give them to me and I will make them think that there has never been a nation of people more fortunate. Yes give them to me and I will hide their wrinkles with cosmetics, drown their cries with delicacies, and cover their weaknesses with exotic fabrics. (Julius Lester)

Philippine politics is in an era where mass media—which has been described as an extension of one’s mouth—plays a dominant role. Mass media is so commanding that it can mobilize people into action, influence election results, and even, it seems, change governments. Indeed, the series of uprisings from 1986 to the present have been credited to media’s ability to break into the mass consciousness and form icons and symbols therein. Joseph Ejercito Estrada is a contemporary icon and, depending who you ask, is the epitome of the hero or anti-hero.

Pres. Arroyo was flabbergasted when an “enterprising Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) official” sold a video of a humbled Estrada to the local and international media. Estrada was shown in police custody and grim-faced as his mug shots were taken. A noted TV commentator said that the sight was enough to move people to take the deposed president’s side. And, certainly, this was supposed to have given the “EDSA III” instigators the spark needed to start an uprising. 

For it is supposedly detestable to the Filipino masa’s psyche for a president—who was also an action star to boot—to be behind bars. What more that contemporary Goebbels so successfully portrayed Estrada as the people’s martyr persecuted for having sided with the poor and downtrodden. The advertising genius of those behind the Erap-the-persecuted mystique is really close to extraordinary.

The Power of Myths

Estrada’s demagogic power draws strength from the mass media’s ability to create and popularize the Erap myth—a myth that the common folk, including both the tattooed and the religious, can empathize with. Estrada was characterized in his cinema years as a man of the poor or, as columnist Conrado de Quiros aptly said, a criminal with a heart of gold, a Tondo Robin Hood. He is the demigod who rose from the gutter and delivered light to the people.

Erap’s propaganda machine gets much of the credit for his transformation from a small-time city mayor to a national political figure. It effectively wove the movie icon with the general sentiment against poverty and injustice.

When he was vice-president and head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC), he toughened up his image further by figuring prominently in spectacular cases. During his presidential stint, he was Geron Busabos—tough on “wrongdoers” (as when he launched the Total War Policy against the NPA, MILF, and Abu Sayyaf) but gentle with the poor. He was the Crime Buster, at least until he was busted with millions in his pockets.

Philippine politics is not far removed from the glitter and glamour of showbiz. Politicians package themselves so that people see them as bigger than life, as Supermen among mortals. The challenge to them is to create the appropriate character who will appeal to the public. If Erap portrayed himself as Geron Busabos, Gloria is Ate Glo. If Alfredo Lim is the “Dirty Harry” of Manila, Noli de Castro is Kabayang Noli.

But the game works both ways. A politician’s reputation can also be destroyed by resorting to the erstwhile children’s game of name-calling. When elevated to the realm of politics, it becomes the serious business of black propaganda and character assassination. Miriam was the tough graft buster before she became Ms. Tililing or Brenda (i.e. “brain-damaged”). Tessie Aquino capitalized on his brother Ninoy’s popularity with the catchphrase “Kapatid ni Ninoy” yet now, after her gyrations during the impeachment trial, she’s Ms. Pokpok.

Beyond the Myth

However Estrada’s power goes beyond the cultural myth. He also has political and economic clout courtesy of a section of the traditional ruling elite, particularly of the once-dominant Marcos-era elite bloc, which backed him up and turned him into a force to reckon with. In return he granted his patrons political and economic concessions.

Early on, Estrada approved the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani to appease his Ilokano patrons (though this was nipped in the bud by a vigilant public). Danding Cojuangco wrested control of San Miguel Corporation from the Sorianos while Lucio Tan took over the airline industry. Other cronies were able to tap GSIS and SSS funds. His closest friends and his numerous families partook of the spoils due bureaucrat capital.

Ironically, it was the failure of the Arroyo government to expedite the arrest of Erap and his cronies’ and the freezing of their assets that allowed the EDSA 3 putsch to take place. They retained their cache of money—to feed the mob and buy a few mercenary military officials—and horde of men.

In the meantime, Miriam Santiago and her cohorts fired up the dazed pro-Erap masa to troop to Malacañang, as if to to haul the diminutive President Arroyo out of power, amidst a hail of bullets and against phalanxes of battle-scarred Marines and fuming anti-riot squads. Tear gas filled the air; anti-riot policemen swung their truncheons like baseball bats in gangland while the kanto boys countered with stones, knives, steel pipes, indian pana, etc., etc. Yet the leaders who egged the people on with shouts of “Walang iwanan!,” were absent from the combat zone.

Blood flowed but, in the final analysis, EDSA 3 was an exercise in futility. The loyalists scampered in all directions while their leaders ran, tails between their legs, and holed up in their plush mansions to grieve over the death of their political ambitions. The masa were rounded up and literally dragged to prison, all bruised, humbled, and abandoned.

EDSA 3: Bound to Fail

EDSA 3, a poor copy of People Power 1 and 2 in substance as well as in form, was bound to fail. It didn’t have the ingredients for a successful uprising. For one, the moral imperative was absent and there was only Estrada, a most ineffective rallying point.

The most the Erap clique could do was gather Estrada’s remaining political followers and augment these with the religious flock of El Shaddai and Iglesia ni Cristo. But these religious groups, comprising perhaps half of the protestors, backed out at the last minute before the siege of Malacañang.

Moreover, Arroyo was careful to quickly woo the military upon her ascension to power, aware that it was a sword that could fall on her head. Former President Fidel Ramos and former NICA chief Jose Almonte consolidated their hold on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP), systematically dismantling Erap’s own machinery. Officials closely linked with Erap and his cronies were reassigned or put on floating status. All the Erap clique had left were a few officials led by Cesar Mancao and Jake Macalajacan, who were both on floating status after People Power 2. The dreaded PAOCTF was disbanded and its criminal activities exposed to the public.

To give her government a respite which would enable her to focus on combating the right-wing elements led by the Estrada clique, Arroyo also courted militarily active insurgents by offering them the peace pipe. The strategy of peace negotiations and the forming of tactical alliances with the Left and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) insurgents served the government well and there was a marked decrease in rebel offensives. Moreover, civil society organizations were supporting Arroyo against the power grab.

EDSA 3 is a sad chapter in the history of Philippine politics but it is bound to be repeated. Until an enlightened leadership and an empowered masa burst forth, Philippine politics will continue to be the playing ground of the corrupt and of opportunists. #