What we are witnessing today is an open war among the original conspirators of Edsa 2, which unconstitutionally ousted, arrested and jailed President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in 2001. At the center of this storm is not so much what they are saying as what they are not --- their need to justify to posterity what they did to Estrada, especially now that he is a free man.
The Edsa-2 conspiracy attained its final objective on Sept. 12, 2007 when the Sandiganbayan convicted Estrada of plunder and sentenced him to reclusion perpetua. But the partisans felt betrayed, and their unity promptly crumbled, when on Oct. 25 President Gloria Arroyo granted Estrada executive clemency and ended his six and a half years in jail.
“What happens to us now?” This was the question that immediately faced the old Edsa 2 actors who saw in the pardon the possible proof or likely seed of a political alliance between the primary beneficiary and the principal victim of Edsa 2. Nobody expected anything like it; not even former President Fidel V. Ramos seemed prepared to see what hit their ranks.
Edsa 2’s partisans could overlook any and all of Arroyo’s sins --- sins for which the overwhelming majority of our people, poor and powerless, had long demanded her ouster---but not this one. This was a betrayal of their common cause, which had put them above the rule of law and everybody else. Edsa-2 was all about removing Estrada and putting him away for a very long time, if not forever. It had no room for acquittal, parole or pardon.
It was Dostoevsky, rather than St. Thomas or any moral theologian or philosopher, who said that the most difficult sin to forgive is the knowledge of those you have wronged that you have, in fact, wronged them. Estrada knows who has wronged him, and has forgiven them; but they cannot seem to forgive him his knowing that they had wronged him.
These lords of selective morality never asked whether it was right for the Supreme Court justices to declare that Estrada had resigned “constructively,” when in fact and in truth he never did. Or whether any court of law could acquire criminal jurisdiction over a President who has not resigned or been removed upon conviction in an impeachment trial. They never asked whether the requirements of due process had been met before they put him on the dock; they simply accepted everything his accusers and prosecutors said – hook, line and sinker.
Thus, to them, freeing Erap was a crime bigger than stealing the presidency twice in four years; bigger than the unsolved killings and disappearances of political militants; bigger than the massive corruption that has turned government into a criminal syndicate and public office into a den of thieves; bigger than the rape of institutions, and the destruction of political, constitutional and moral values, not least of which are the integrity of the military, the independence of the judiciary, the constitutional rights and prerogatives of Congress, the sanctity of the ballot, the inviolability of the impeachment process, the incorruptibility of churchmen and the vigilance of the press.
Thus, they showed no outrage when military and police generals were shown to have cheated for their Commander-in-Chief in the 2004 elections; none when FVR weighed in to prevent Mrs. Arroyo from falling at the height of the Hello, Garci affair; none when the electioneering generals were promoted to powerful positions as reward for their crimes against the Filipino people; and still none when she showed every resolve to make the country the undisguised vassal of a foreign hegemon. They simply looked at the numbers in the bourse, and decided that so long as the profit-taking was good, questions about legitimacy, rule of law and justice were but “political noise” that must be contained. It mattered little to them that amid the moonshine about the economy getting stronger, the people were getting progressively poorer.
Who really profited from the “pardon”?
Perhaps the story can now be told. At the height of the Malacanang bribery scandal, following the allegations of large-scale bribery offers in the grossly overpriced $329.5 million ZTE National Broadband Network deal, an explosion hit the Glorietta 2 shopping mall, killing 11 and wounding over a hundred people. It occurred on the very day the Sandigan was hearing the oral arguments on Estrada’s motion for reconsideration (m.r.) of its Sept. 12 decision. Mrs. Arroyo’s top defense and security officials had called it a terrorist act but could not produce a credible terrorist to claim it; it threatened to see Mrs. Arroyo finally toppling over. All her flanks were exposed, and she stood virtually alone.
Then a recently retired Western diplomat planed in and sat down with certain high government officials. They reportedly discussed the possibility of forming a transition team to run the post-Arroyo government. But even walls have ears, and this apparently quickly reached Malacanang. So Mrs. Arroyo reacted with lightning speed, and fast-tracked Estrada’s pardon. Her negotiators got Erap’s lawyers to withdraw his well-argued m.r., which showed so clearly and convincingly why the court had erred in convicting him of plunder, and instead write her a letter asking for pardon.
Without Estrada having to say anything himself, this was enough, for Malacanang’s purposes, to send out a signal to the outside world that Erap and the masa had decided to back the beleaguered president. It was pure perception play, a clever manipulation of images and symbols. As soon as news of Estrada’s pardon leaked out, some proposed key players in the proposed transition team fell under the weather and got scarce. At Glorietta, the terrorism theory quickly gasified into an industrial accident, thereby eliminating the possible involvement of any “terrorist” or government agent.
None of these was apparently known to Estrada. Upon his lawyers’ advice, he had authorized his m.r.’s withdrawal and the request for pardon in good faith, not realizing that in consenting to this political maneuver, he was in fact saving her from the inglorious end, which so many had longed for and long foretold.
To most of Erap’s supporters, Mrs. Arroyo owes Erap and the nation a debt of justice, which must be paid in full. Stealing the presidency is a far graver crime than looting the treasury; it demands restitution. They see the pardon as a puny and grossly imperfect attempt on Mrs. Arroyo’s part to make amends to Erap for usurping his office in 2001. They also see it as tacit recognition on her part that Estrada’s case was primarily political from beginning to end, and that pardoning him after conviction was one way she could, if ever so slightly, try to salve her own conscience.
This was why although the masa seemed genuinely happy to see their old idol back, many were not so happy that, after fighting for justice for so long, he had to withdraw his m.r. and ask for pardon from his oppressor, who needed the pardon much more than he did. Thus when Erap publicly thanked Mrs. Arroyo for her act of clemency in San Juan, and asked his hometown crowd to applaud, they could not bring themselves to do so; some of them literally booed.
Because they love Erap, the masa will respect his decision and will not criticize it. But they are not likely to support her continued stay in office. For his part, because he is essentially a grateful man, he will probably continue to thank Mrs. Arroyo, despite his having lost to her his presidency and his personal liberty for six and a half years. But he has no obligation to save her from her inevitable fate.
The fire now burns like the California fire in the open field. It will rage on until the structure called the Arroyo regime is reduced to ashes. Estrada has no reason to burn down with it.