MANILA, December 29, 2003  (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - That was great timing for the Sandiganbayan. What better time to allow deposed President Joseph Estrada to go to the United States for knee surgery than Christmas, the season of love and charity? Someone wants this nation of short memories to forgive and forget – we’re just not sure who: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo or the justices of the anti-graft court.

How do you solve a problem like Erap? GMA toyed with the idea of sending him into exile à la Ferdinand Marcos as soon as it became clear that EDSA II would lead to regime change.

Erap might have considered exile, in the depths of his despair and betrayal by men he had trusted. But then someone advised him to stand up and fight. So he announced he had not resigned but was merely on leave from the presidency, making his vice president, GMA, the acting president.

What Erap refused to do, the Supreme Court did for him. In an unprecedented move by the high tribunal, while Erap was still dazed and trying to figure out what had hit him, the presidency was declared vacant and a new chief executive sworn in. Now those events keep coming back to haunt the administration born of people power II.

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After the sadness of two Christmases past, this holiday season must be so much better for jailbird Joseph Estrada. His accommodations have improved, a nosy nation has lost interest in the women who visit him, and he is probably enjoying once again his favorite red wine, the prohibitive Petrus, courtesy of sycophants and other creatures needing his blessings.

Blessings for what? Not only for the substantial votes that he is believed to still command, but also for an endorsement to his bosom buddy PPJ – oops, I mean FPJ, a.k.a. Fernando Poe Jr. The man’s lips are sealed, let’s hope not permanently, so people gravitate toward the more talkative of the two friends. That would be Erap, jailbird turned power broker.

Why, the friends now have even Sen. Loren Legarda on their side, letting on to anyone interested that she’s going to be FPJ’s running mate. How that can happen must befuddle Erap, who surely still remembers the tears of frustration shed by Loren when his allies blocked the opening of the second envelope at his impeachment trial.

President Erap had been a nightmare for people in this country who think. But such is the weakness of a half-baked democracy where immense power is vested in a poorly educated electorate, and where long-entrenched oligarchies — a minuscule fraction of the population — control political power and wealth.

The Erap presidency was a nightmare waiting to happen. EDSA II was meant to cut short the nightmare. But you don’t change attitudes and political systems overnight. Especially when the administration born on the wings of high expectations turns out to be a disappointment. If people are again willing to consider another actor for president even after the Erap show bombed badly at the box office, much of the blame goes to the Arroyo administration.

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To this the President may respond that three years is too short – and it is – for her administration to make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of people who have been wallowing in poverty for decades.

She can then argue that she will need six more years if people want her to make a difference. This time, however, divine providence won’t drop six years of power into her lap. She will need a clear mandate from the electorate.

And the way candidate GMA is going about it, there are people who think she will cut a deal even with the devil to get what she wants.

So she announces that she wants unity and national reconciliation even with the forces that were against EDSA II. She impulsively announces an amnesty program obviously without consulting any legal adviser. She finally starts getting her controversial husband out of the picture, even from her 2003 Christmas card inspired by the Madonna and Child. She tells soldiers not to forget that she’s their mother who gives them their pay raise.

And the Sandiganbayan reverses itself and finally allows Erap to go abroad for knee surgery. Erap must know something we don’t since he thanked the Arroyo administration, not the court and the judiciary, for the approval of his furlough. It must be the fact that the President’s campaign manager himself is offering her administration’s help in getting Erap a US visa. It must be the little things that mean a lot to a detainee, which Erap has been getting lately; all he has to do is ask.

Erap didn’t get to spend Christmas with his beloved mom. But now he wants something else: a diplomatic passport. Why do we get the feeling he will get it?

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It would have been easier if Erap had simply left the country after leaving Malacañang. But he probably thought Asyong Salonga the neighborhood toughie was not supposed to take flight. And with so many corrupt officials in this land, who would have imagined at the time that the Philippines would put a popularly elected president in jail for corruption?

No one reckoned with the will of the Arroyo administration. From Erap’s indictment to his arrest and detention without bail, the impression was that all this was an executive act, with the judiciary simply doing Malacañang’s bidding.

The administration initially reaped accolades for its determination to crack down on corruption. But it didn’t take long for the clean image to be tarnished by scandal after corruption scandal, most of them implicating people close to the President herself, including her husband. The nation forgot Erap but was constantly reminded that it was monkey business as usual in the EDSA II administration.

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And so a year is ending with people spooked by the prospect of yet another actor taking over Malacañang. As part of efforts to prevent that from happening, Malacañang is trying to finesse Erap’s departure without further compromising the independence and credibility of an already compromised judiciary.

Whether this will work in candidate GMA’s favor can be known only in May. With FPJ running, there’s no way Erap the power broker will endorse President Arroyo to his fans. She could instead end up alienating both the Erap-FPJ crowd and what remains of her EDSA II constituency.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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