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ERAP'S BIG ROLE

Estrada has had a rough start, but as in the movies he plans to prevail

By Antonio Lopez / Manila


Language Promoting Filipino over English

Congress Not doing much these days

Makeover Three steps to a more presidential President

At a glance How the Philippines compares

LET US JUST SAY HIS REPUTATION proceeded him. It was simply pre-ordained that the opening weeks of Joseph Ejercito Estrada's presidency would be ones of stumbles, grumbles and, of course, lots of laughs - some at the president's behest, some at his expense. This is pretty much the way it has been since "Erap" (Buddy) stepped out of the movies and into Philippine politics.

However, Estrada is president at a time of unprecedented complexity and uncertainty, a scary new era that is testing the skills of the planet's most experienced leaders. Doubters wondered if Estrada had the right stuff to be Philippine chief executive back in 1997, when he first made public his aspirations to be president. Some still wonder.

The gaffes that have punctuated the Estrada presidency so far seem to confirm some people's worst fears. In recent weeks a nagging perception has developed of a government in drift. Word that the deeply indebted flag carrier Philippine Airlines was about to close further cemented the notion that the president was way out of his depth. "PAL is only a small aspect of the economy," sneered economist Solita Monsod. "If Estrada cannot solve it, how can he solve the economic crisis?"

Then Estrada confounded his critics when he announced a possible solution to the PAL mess. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, he said, had offered to manage PAL, restart its critical domestic routes and begin negotiations to buy a substantial interest in the carrier. Suddenly Erap seemed more like a can-do guy in the mold of his predecessor Fidel Ramos. Even Big Business applauded. "The president has shown that when the going gets rough, he can turn it around," says Raul Concepcion, vice chairman of the powerful Makati Business Club.

There is a real reluctance among many Filipinos to judge their president before he has had a chance to prove himself. "Erap is still groping his way around and trying his best," says former house speaker Jose de Venecia, whom Estrada defeated in the May polls. "You need to give him more time."

Tell that to the local media. Joseph Estrada won the largest electoral mandate in Philippine history. Yet he never got the honeymoon usually afforded incoming chief executives. If anything, he says, Manila reporters were waiting to pounce on his first blunders. It didn't take long. During a state-of-the-nation address in July, Estrada declared: "We are bankrupt," a reference that prompted the nation's credit rating to plunge some 200 basis points. Addressing a meeting of the nation's major donors and creditors last month, he explained his blunt talk. "A policy of full and honest disclosure is the best one," Estrada said. "It will give a clear assessment of the magnitude of tasks that need to be carried out and a clear basis for the formulation of an effective strategy to address the problems."

The incident is vintage Estrada: Time and again he has chosen unfortunate words, confused people (and markets) and been forced to explain himself later. Sometimes this seems like a flip-flop, and sometimes it is. Yet his shoot-from-the-hip persona is arguably what endears him most to regular folk and helped him win the presidency.

This is a man from the humor-is-best school of diplomacy. He breaks the ice with jokes. Here is how he recently introduced his tourism secretary, Gemma Cruz Araneta, a former Miss International: "She may be in her 50s," Estrada cracked, "but she still has some juice left." At another function, Estrada introduced Chinese business leaders with: "Oh, here are your favorite victims." And don't get him started telling jokes about his lousy English.

To the sympathetically inclined, the Estrada way is disarming, even charming. To less doting audiences he seems like a president capable of scaring away investors, a jittery enough breed these days. Critics also question some of Estrada's judgment calls since he took office. His decision to allow the burial of Ferdinand Marcos's remains at Manila's Cemetery for Heroes sparked such an outcry in July that the president was forced to backtrack - not exactly an auspicious start to his term.

Still, there was method to the seeming madness. Estrada hoped to close an ugly chapter of Philippine history, and thought that putting Marcos in the ground would help the nation move on. Surveys showed that many Filipinos were starting to believe Marcos was not the real villain; his wife Imelda was. But the Manila media, led by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, helped force Estrada to drop the plan, and he told the Marcoses to bury the late president elsewhere.

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HOW THE PHILIPPINES STACKS UP

  Projected Inflation Export Currency Non- Gross Debt
  GDP Rate Growth Depreciation performing International Service
  Growth   (Jan.-June) vs. US$ loans Reserves Ratio
  1998     since Jan.'97      
               
INDONESIA -18% 69% 4.66% -78.00% 50% $19.5 b 42.10%
MALAYSIA -6% 5.00% 10.00% -32.50% 18.00% $20.3 b 5.70%
PHILIPPINES 1% 8.40% 18.80% -40.00% 10.20% $10.5 b 10.70%
SINGAPORE 0.50% -0.80% -11.50% -19% 7% $69.3 b NA
SOUTH KOREA -7.50% 8.60% 0.99% -39.00% 25.00% $43.0 b 8.90%
THAILAND -10% 9.70% 4.08% -35.00% 46.00% $26.8 b 15.50%

Sources: Flemings Emerging Markets Focus; Singapore Government; Asiaweek Research


THE ESTRADA MAKEOVER: HOW TO BE MORE PRESIDENTIAL

l. DITCH THE COMEDY ACT

The president has a habit of shooting his mouth off or making off-color remarks. This makes it hard for people to accord him the appropriate presidential awe (and Bill Clinton thought he had problems). At the same time, however, Estrada's refreshing candor pleases sympathetic crowds and helped him win the largest electoral mandate in Philippine history. Recommendation: Save the stand-up routine for the provinces, where it is appreciated, and adopt appropriate gravitas for policy speeches.

2. JUMP-START THAT LEGACY

Estrada is routinely compared (unfavorably) to his predecessor, Fidel Ramos - the man most often credited with saving the Philippine economy. Right or wrong, many people believe he cannot match Ramos's various achievements. Recommendation: Remind Filipinos of all the things the previous administration left undone - especially land reform and the revitalization of the agricultural sector - and expedite them.

3. STAY ON MESSAGE

One of the charges most often leveled at the president is that he is not really in charge of his administration. These allegations arise at least in part because his ministers contradict one another, sometimes on the same afternoon. Recommendation: Put in place a centralized communications system with designated spokespeople so such gaffes stop happening. Oh yes, and make friends with the Manila media.


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