Estrada wants snap election

2001-01-19 14:10

Manila, Philippines - As fears of a coup gripped the Philippines, President Joseph Estrada suffered a series of defections on Friday from the military and his Cabinet, then urged Congress to call a snap election to replace him in May.

Estrada said he would not run in the election. But after losing many of his remaining allies, he clearly was unwilling to hand power to Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She has led an opposition campaign joined by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Filipinos and unlikely allies from big business and left-wing communist groups.

"Since I still have the support of a significant segment of our people, I don't think that the present polarisation can be healed by a new leader who will take over without an electoral mandate from our people," Estrada said in a nationally televised statement.

Estrada, still popular among millions of poor people whose cause he championed, said he wants the presidential election to occur in May, when Filipinos also will fill half of the Senate seats and all of the House of Representatives.

If was unclear whether that would satisfy the crowds who massed to demand the immediate resignation of the former film star, whose political career was ruined by charges that he pocketed payoffs from illegal gambling operations and skimmed provincial tobacco taxes.

The end, however it eventually plays out, became inevitable for Estrada earlier in the afternoon.

Military chief Gen. Angelo Reyes abandoned the president's camp and appeared before some 150 000 anti-Estrada demonstrators crowding a monument to the 1986 revolt that ousted the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Reyes said Estrada and his family should be allowed to "exit with dignity".

"Let us not be vindictive," Reyes said.

Other leaders seeking Estrada's ouster called for reconciliation in the impoverished Southeast Asian island nation that has endured months of political turmoil since a provincial governor went public in October with charges that the president had taken millions in gambling kickbacks and money from tobacco taxes.

"Let's begin the healing process, because our country has been so deeply divided," Arroyo said.

The festive anti-Estrada rally echoed the protests against Marcos, who fled the country when the military turned against him.

"It's over," Education Secretary Andrew Gonzales said earlier as he announced his own resignation. "The continuation of the Estrada presidency is no longer viable."

Gonzales said he tried to contact Estrada but couldn't get through. "It was like a fortress there," he said.

Estrada aides found themselves publicly denying speculation that Estrada had fled the country before the president appeared on TV to say people should choose his successor.

Wildly chanting anti-Estrada demonstrators, who had hanged the president in effigy and conducted a mock trial that found him guilty, were jubilant as they declared victory in the streets of Manila.

"There will be peaceful change," said fish vendor Jaime Villegas, who turned out after being angered by perceptions that Estrada was attempting to cover up a fortune that prosecutors say he hid from the people.

"Personally I am very happy because I see that the eyes of our people have been opened," said Emmanuel del Rosario, a 25-year-old Catholic seminary student. "I believe that this is a big sign of hope that we're maturing spiritually and politically."

With the nation spellbound by the unfolding political drama, even the president's top ally in the Senate, Francisco Tatad, stepped in at one point to say it was time for his friend to "do the honourable thing" and end a "crisis of epic proportions".

Estrada appeared twice on television on Friday. His first statement came just minutes before the defections began.

Saying "my conscience is clear", Estrada made a last-ditch effort to serve out a term that ends in 2004. He urged lawmakers to restart his impeachment trial on corruption charges, saying he was willing to let prosecutors open bank records that had been blocked, sparking a wave of protests that escalated throughout the week.

Estrada appealed for the crisis to be resolved according to the constitution and not by the military or demonstrations.

National police officials, the army chief and air force chief all gathered at the anti-Estrada rally, many still wearing their uniforms under a rain of confetti as thousands of people chanted "soldiers of the country, standing up for their rights".

Estrada's assembled political foes solemnly sang the national anthem. Former Defence Secretary Renato de Villa declared: "We have won."

The nation's worst political crisis in years hit a crucial juncture on Tuesday, when senators serving as judges in Estrada's impeachment trial voted narrowly to keep sealed bank records that prosecutors from the House of Representatives said would prove Estrada was corrupt. The prosecutors all resigned.

Concerns about a coup, in a nation with a history of coup attempts, were fuelled further early on Friday.

A newspaper advertisement signed by 60 members of the Philippine Military Academy class of 1962 urged Estrada's departure and said Philippine soldiers "know what to do during the critical days ahead as they have done in the past for the good of their country and their people".

Those signing the ad included retired Gen. Lisandro C. Abadia - a key player in the revolt that ousted Marcos, whose widow, Imelda, has been one of Estrada's high-profile supporters.

Philippine Army troops who had been battling communist guerrillas in rural areas were recalled to metropolitan Manila, officials said on Friday, in case they were needed to restore order. No numbers were immediately available.

Estrada, known by the nickname "Erap", has insisted he is innocent of taking kickbacks from an illegal numbers game and skimming provincial tobacco taxes. The scandal also has focused on mansions he allegedly bought for some of his acknowledged mistresses.

The crisis has been harsh on Philippine financial markets and an economy that wasn't in great shape to begin with.

Sensing that Estrada was finished, traders swung into action late on Friday afternoon and pushed the battered currency, the peso, sharply higher. It surged to 47 to the US dollar, compared to its previous level of more than 54 to the dollar.

Tensions were heightened on Friday when some 5 000 pro-Estrada demonstrators converged on the business district, throwing rocks at anti-Estrada forces who hurled the stones back. Two people were reportedly injured.