Asia’s basket case

THEY say people get the government they deserve. That is not true of the 78 million population of the Philippines, most of whom are hard working, talented and fun loving. They deserve better.

Within living memory, the archipelago was one of the wealthiest nations in Asia. A succession of inept and corrupt leaders have plundered the national coffers and impoverished the people.

The current president, former film actor Joseph Estrada, may be toppled any day, after serving 28 months of his six-year term of office.

Estrada has been accused of taking more than US$8.6 million in kickbacks from the proceeds of an illegal gambling numbers game called Jueteng. Political opponents also allege he dipped his hand into the provincial tobacco tax revenue to the tune of $2.8 million.

Although it is these charges that might cause Estrada to resign or be impeached, the Philippines has been going backwards all year.

Bombings in Manila, the heavy fighting against separatist forces in Mindanao province, kidnapping of tourists, and a looming confrontation with the IMF, is turning away investors in droves.

The peso has crashed to an all-time low of US 2¢ and share prices on the stock market have almost halved. Interest rates have been hoisted by four per cent with negligible effects.

Foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to US$13 billion, well below the $16 billion promised to the IMF in order to qualify for the next tranche of a drip feed US$1.4 billion standby loan secured in 1998. Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have downgraded the country’s rating from stable to negative.

The Philippines should not be a basket case. Exports have been increasing at an average 16 per cent for several years in succession.

The electronics industry has been flourishing under tax concessions, with both domestic and foreign manufacturers selling mobile phones and other goods overseas at very competitive prices.

GDP growth this year was slated for four per cent – bottom of the Asian league table but at least positive – although far from the seven per cent touched under the presidency of Estrada’s pre-decessor the respected Fidel Ramos.

However, democracy works best when there is a gap between rich and poor, rather than a chasm.

On a trip to the US earlier this year, rattling the tin for investment and trade, Estrada was accompanied by Lucio Tan, who controls Philippines Airlines, and Eduardo Cojuangco, the “coconut king” during the Marcos years, who is now back at the helm of the San Miguel brewery and agri-business.

Tan raised his ownership of the Philippine National Bank to 76 per cent when he bought a 30 per cent block of stock from the government.

No other contender was deemed worthy of purchasing the shares which, many believe, should have been offered for sale to the public. A number of Estrada’s close pals have come out of the woodwork to assume prominent posts in the government.

Minor insider dealing scandals were the curtain raiser to the current corruption and bribery crisis.

Gloria Arroyo, runner up in the presidential election who auto-matically became Vice-president, has formed a united opposition to Estrada. She says “it is imperative that the president resign immed-iately to avoid irreparable damage to the economy”.

It is hard to see how he can survive. Estrada cannot rely on his Cabinet, and his enemies say they have the numbers in the Lower House to impeach him, after which he could be tried in the Senate.

Cardinal Sin has called for his resignation, which carries con-siderable weight in the over-whelmingly Catholic country. The armed forces would not be supportive, and the admirably free press in Manila is baying for his blood.

Estrada is holed up in his Malacanang Palace residence protesting “I did not take a centavo”.

Growing crowds gather, calling for him to go. It is an eery echo of the “people power” revolution that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in February, 1986.

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