MANILA, June 26, 2005
(STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - It’s uncanny how history repeats itself. President Abdala Bucaram ruled Ecuador only six months in 1997. Splurging his term womanizing, gambling, boozing – and rifling the public till of $100 million – Congress impeached him. A female vice president rose to power. Sounds familiar? Peru’s Alejandro Toledo is today Latin America’s most reviled president. With poll ratings skulking at 8-14 percent, he is being asked by opponents, churchmen, militants and even some allies to resign – for corrupt reign and election rigging six months back. Yet businessmen wish him to stay, for the economy has never been better; besides, they distrust his veep.

Shades of 1992 or 2005 Philippines? Bolivia’s president abdicated in late 2003 when soldiers killed 40 demonstrating peasants. Carlos Mesa, a television anchor before becoming vice president, took over. Unappeased hungry miners and farmers intensified their strikes. On June 9 Mesa stepped down. The Senate President assumed office, but street battles forced him too to leave by dusk. The Speaker declined the job. The Chief Justice stepped in, setting elections by yearend to avert civil war. A glimpse of the future?

Maybe. And if so, will Filipinos learn from history’s follies? Latest surveys show a President tottering from searing inflation. Tales of jueteng payolas to kith and kin further have wounded Gloria Arroyo. Foes are moving in for the kill with a wiretap that insinuates fraud in last year’s polling. Retired generals are bugling coup d’etat if she doesn’t resign before a scheduled State of the Nation on July 25. Separate but sympathetic, leftists and Opposition traditional pols are yelling for ejection of VP Noli de Castro and all election overseers as well. It’s not to pave the way for new elections, though. Against sobering advice of former justice and Constitution framer Cecilia Muñoz-Palma to take the impeachment route, they are fast-breaking to power. Offering to head their junta is jailed ex-president Joseph Estrada.

Going for Ms Arroyo by far is that no one among her bitterest critics has stood up as viable alternative. But for how long? The many Opposition factions are striving to unite. Already Sen. Panfilo Lacson has rejoined the bloc he had flicked in running for President against a stronger Fernando Poe Jr. With Poe dead and Estrada detained, he is in position to be on lead.

Ms Arroyo’s civil-society allies unwittingly could play into Lacson’s hands. Appalled at hearing her unmistakable voice in the wiretap and her guilty silence on its contents, they are demanding explanations where none might suffice. Lacson deftly had taken that line ahead, emerging reasonable in skirting extreme calls for resignation, snap poll or junta. He thus grabbed the initiative. Before the press last week with Opposition bosses Jojo Binay, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and Rep. Francis Escudero of the Estrada-Poe camp, he revived a long-settled electoral protest. Too, Lacson is setting up "Be Not Afraid" centers to distribute wiretap CDs. The move adds pressure on Ms Arroyo to speak about improper phone calls to Comelec nominee Virgilio Garcillano during the vote canvassing.

"Be not afraid?" Executive Sec. Ed Ermita belittlingly tittered at the catchy title. "There’s really nothing to be afraid of ... go on with our lives." It was a nervous laugh. Moments later Malacañang extended by a month the term of the retiring Armed Forces chief, clearly in anticipation of a storm. "Be not afraid," an Arroyo lawyer snickered, "The people are ignoring this contrived crisis." And then stock prices and the peso tumbled.

For many other Palace insiders, Lacson’s ascent as Opposition unifier bears the opposite message: be very afraid. Calculatedly his spread of the CDs will further gnaw at Ms Arroyo’s standing. But there’s more than that. From many indications, it was Lacson who craftily had devised the jueteng stories, first with "press exclusives" on three bagmen, then a Senate probe in which his party pal "confessed" to paying off Ms Arroyo’s son and spouse. It appears he was behind the wiretap too. As NBI chief Reynaldo Wycoco disclosed, retired spy Sammy Ong, who brags to hold the bugging master tape, had campaigned for Lacson. Ong in turn let on that the wiretapper was intelligence Sgt. Vidal Doble, once attached to Lacson’s Anti-Organized Crime Task Force under Estrada. The crisis in effect is a Lacson ploy, from which he would be the foremost beneficiary.

How Lacson got this far after last year’s election defeat is, as with the wiretapped chats, partly Ms Arroyo’s doing. For political expediency she had reconciled with him. Murmurs are that she struck a deal to freeze his prosecution for crimes committed while National Police chief: kidnapping, murder, drug trafficking. True or not, Lacson is now having his way. Forgotten by the leftists around him, he had tortured activists as a young lieutenant during Marcos’s martial law. Not only Malacañang aides are trembling, but most likely Garcillano too. Lacson has hinted that somebody might silence him on the wiretap; that hit man may not come from the Administration. Even Chief Justice Hilario Davide has had to react to talks of a junta in case of chaos, saying he would never sit in it.

There’s an epilogue to Bucaram’s story. Three years after his fall, the elected president Jamil Mabuod ruled as corruptly. Impeached in 2002 for similar offenses as Bucaram, Lucio Gutierrez took over. A former security officer of Bucaram’s who plunged Ecuador into narco-politics, Gutierrez dissolved the Supreme Court and had a new one ruling last April to not indict his ex-boss for past crimes. Bucaram triumphantly returned from self-exile in Panama, igniting a middle-class uprising similar to the one that had led to his 1997 expulsion. Within days Gutierrez crumbled and fled to Brazil. An ending for Filipinos to study, perhaps?

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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