Estrada seeks redemption in RP election

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 25 2009 11:29 AM | Updated as of Oct 25 2009 07:29 PM

MANILA - Riding one of the Philippines' iconic "jeepney" mini-buses used by the poor, Joseph Estrada burst into Manila's dockside slums to begin a seven-month drive aimed at returning him to the presidential palace.

"This is the last performance of my life," the 72-year-old former movie star told a crowd of about 10,000 fans in his trademark husky voice as he officially launched his election campaign last week.

Elected president by a record margin during the Asian crisis in 1998, but then impeached for massive corruption and toppled in a bloodless military coup in 2001, Estrada is seeking redemption through his unlikely campaign.

To this day he denies having taken bribes from illegal gambling operators, embezzling millions of dollars in tobacco taxes and wasting his mandate through inept rule.

He insists it was his replacement, incumbent President Arroyo, who drove the Southeast Asian nation further into poverty and chaos through corruption.

But, although Mrs. Arroyo pardoned him in 2007 after he was sentenced to life in jail for graft, Estrada maintains he has been deeply victimized by the nation's elite.

"I was also a flood victim," he told the crowd, invoking the widespread suffering wrought by a series of tropical storms that claimed more than 1,000 lives in Manila and the northern Philippines over the past month.

"I was convicted based on a flood of lies unleashed by the elite and those who are hungry for power."

Estrada, a college dropout from a large, middle-class family, was born at a Tondo district hospital near the basketball court-size stage where he announced he would contest the May 10, 2010 presidential election.

He gained his immense popularity through a career as an action movie star in which he played tough guy roles defending the poor.

And while he enjoys a lifestyle the Tondo slum dwellers could only dream of living, Estrada's theme for the next election is the same as when he first ran for president -- that he is the poor masses' best chance for a better life.

His rhetoric buys a ready audience among the tens of thousands living a precarious existence in Tondo.

"We would go to prison for him if they cheated him out of an election victory," vowed Rita Hingpes, a 54-year-old grandmother in the crowd.

Hingpes said she spent five days in a Manila prison in May 2001 after being detained for joining tens of thousands of Estrada supporters who stormed the Malacañang presidential palace armed only with rocks and placards in a failed bid to restore their idol to power.

"Erap loves the poor," echoed Hingpes' neighbor, 44-year-old housewife Fe Juanio, calling Estrada by his nickname which means "pal" or "chum" in the local vernacular, spelt in reverse.

Segundo Romero, political science professor at Manila's De La Salle University, told AFP that Estrada was hoping for popular absolution in next year's election.

"He wants to clear his name and absolve himself," Romero said.

Poll numbers show Estrada retains some support among the nation's poor, scoring 18 percent in a poll of preferred presidential candidates this month, putting him among the top three front-runners.

Sen. Benigno Aquino III, the son of democracy icon Corazon Aquino, was the clear leader with 60 percent, while property tycoon Sen. Manuel Villar was in second place.

"He's going to get a big chunk of the vote, but I don't think he's going to win," Romero said when asked to assess Estrada's chances.

Before he even gets to election day, Estrada faces a big legal hurdle.

A key condition of Estrada's pardon by Mrs. Arroyo was that he not run for president again, while the Philippine constitution limits presidents to a single term.

Opponents have said they will file legal challenges to strike down Estrada's presidential bid, but he insists he has received sound advice that he can run. Ultimately, it may be an issue the Supreme Court has to rule on.