- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Back in his B-movie acting days, Philippine President Joseph Estrada might have turned down this script.

A third of the way into his term, Mr. Estrada confronts a plunging peso, seemingly permanent insurgency movements in the Muslim-majority south, a growing opposition coalition headed by his own vice president, and now, an impeachment inquiry over a bribery scandal involving the president and his family.

With strong majorities in both houses of the Philippine Congress, the populist Mr. Estrada, a former movie star with a strong following among the nation's poor, cannot be counted out, analysts say. But his position is shakier than at any time since his 1998 election to a six-year term in Manila's Malacanang Palace.

Prolonged instability looms for a reliable U.S. ally in an unsettled area, with neighboring Indonesia facing its own political crisis and China flexing its muscles along one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Douglas Paal, an Asia specialist in the Bush administration and now the president of the Washington-based Asia-Pacific Policy Center, said that the Philippine crisis has played out entirely in constitutional channels, and does not present yet the kind of crisis Indonesia's new democratic government faces.

In the Philippines, "the stakes for the United States are indirect and remote, but they are not insubstantial," Mr. Paal said.

An extended period of uncertainty in Manila could harm the economy and exacerbate the Philippines' social and health problems, perhaps requiring U.S. and international financial support.

And weakness in Manila would only exacerbate problems in the south, where Muslim separatist groups have scored some embarrassing victories against government forces in recent months.

So far, the U.S. government has taken a hands-off stance on Mr. Estrada's political troubles.

The Philippine Star reported that U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Michael Malinowsky told Mr. Estrada in a private meeting late last week that the impeachment crisis is a "purely domestic matter which we believe can be capably handled by your government."

Many of Mr. Estrada's principal adversaries, including Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, and Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Sin, are "durable friends" of the United States, Mr. Paal observed.

The impeachment inquiry that formally opened Monday will probe charges that the president illegally received about $8 million in kickbacks from tobacco taxes and from bribes from operators of "jueteng," an illegal numbers game popular among the country's poor.

Mr. Estrada has denied any wrongdoing, but has been unable to stop the steady flood of new revelations. Manila, meanwhile, is full of rumors that the president is considering martial law or a state of emergency as his political problems mount.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado yesterday sought to allay those fears, saying military leaders will abide by the constitution.

Still, the steady flow of rumors and corruption charges has unsettled many in the country.

"The circuslike allegations from both sides are not good for the country," said House Speaker Manuel Villar, an Estrada supporter, as he cleared the way for committee hearings to begin on the impeachment charges.

The president himself appeared to be considering a special election to resolve the impasse, along the lines of the election called by strongman Ferdinand Marcos under heavy international pressure in 1986.

But with four years left in his term and congressional elections still seven months away, Mr. Estrada said yesterday he was determined to hold on to his office.

"To those who want me to resign, I am telling them this and they should open their ears it is the Filipino masses who brought me to power, and it is only the Filipino [people] who can remove me from here," he told a crowd of supporters in a slum outside Manila yesterday.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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