The scene was the groundbreaking ceremony for a new power plant, and President Joseph Estrada, a former action-movie star known for his mangled English syntax, was slowly warming up his crowd.
"Before, as an actor, when I made an appearance like this, I got paid," he said. "Now as a president, I don't get paid." The crowd roared with laughter. He continued, "And before, if I made a mistake speaking English, they laughed at me. Now I make a mistake in my English grammar, and they criticize me--and they don't even pay me!" He had the audience, a few hundred strong, eating out of his hand.
The critics he mentioned are Manila's educated elite--the opinion page columnists, academics and political rivals who have always underestimated him. They opposed his presidential candidacy in May 1998 and were dumbfounded when he piled up a 40 percent plurality to win in a tough, crowded field. In the months afterward, he continued to defy political gravity, with his sky-high popularity ratings persisting despite his tendency to make ill-advised pronouncements and surround himself with pals.
Lately, however, new opinion polls are showing that more and more Filipinos may be tiring of his act.
One survey, by the Social Weather Stations polling group, showed that Estrada's popularity dropped from 78 percent in June to 56 percent in October. During that time, the number of people dissatisfied with his performance rose from 12 percent to 27 percent. Another survey showed business confidence plummeting, with nearly half of corporate executives saying the government was doing worse than a year ago.
Estrada's popularity rating, still over 50 percent, would be considered high by American political standards. But here, his falling numbers have given rise to a chorus of critical commentary.
"Teflon presidency in a free fall," proclaimed a headline in the newspaper Today.
The main cause for the growing disaffection appears to be economic. Government workers are angry that the president this year scrapped their annual "amelioration pay," a de facto Christmas bonus, and that fuel prices have risen. The gross domestic product grew by 2.4 percent for the first six months of this year, but that's barely above the 2.3 percent annual birthrate.
"What's hurting [Estrada] is economic performance," said Amando Doronila, a columnist with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "If you talk about wages, if you talk about prices, it's the small people getting hurt by an economy that does not benefit them."
Estrada also has been sharply criticized for his proposal to amend the country's 1987 constitution--adopted in the nationalist fervor following the downfall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos--to allow foreigners to purchase land and own 100 percent of investments, up from the 40 percent currently allowed. His critics, including the influential Roman Catholic Church, believe Estrada has a "hidden agenda"--amending the constitution to allow himself a second term.
Estrada also has been dogged by allegations that he has surrounded himself with cronies, old karaoke partners and late-night gambling buddies, many of them ethnic Chinese businessmen and former Marcos associates, who are profiting from the presidential connections. Some, like tycoon Lucio Tan, were large contributors to Estrada's election campaign. And many now are said to play an influential behind-the-scenes role in presidential decision-making, giving rise to derisive references to "the midnight cabinet."
"The official cabinet has been marginalized," said Randy David, a commentator and professor. David's wife, Karina, recently quit as Estrada's housing secretary because of complaints about the power of unappointed advisers. "It's a cabinet without power, a president without insight and palace whisperers without any accountability."
Estrada scoffs at the criticism that he takes late-night advice from his businessmen buddies. "I start early in the morning," he said laughing, during a ride on the presidential helicopter. "How can I have a midnight cabinet?"
Estrada said he does have many friends who are businessmen and that he has appointed many of them as "presidential advisers," largely ceremonial posts that pay only a single peso per year. But he said the advisers "have no real power at all."
But even Estrada now seems to recognize his growing public relations problem. In a recent speech, the president vowed to regain public confidence. Estrada blamed the decline in his poll ratings on the "black propaganda hurled against me and my administration because of my proposal to amend our constitution."
Estrada defended his proposal, which has aroused concerns that a flood of wealthy Taiwanese investors will buy up national assets.
"We are protectionist now," Estrada said. "We have to move with the times." Allowing foreigners to buy land and own 100 percent of their investments is necessary, he said, because under the current 60-40 match, Filipinos usually do not have the needed capital--and foreign investors look elsewhere.
He also tried to allay fears that he wants another six-year term, saying he intends to retire and travel. He said he may endorse the current vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as his successor.
One thing he said he definitely will not do is make another movie. "I want to be remembered for my macho image," he said. "I'll never take a grandfather role."
CAPTION: Philippine President Joseph Estrada, with Zara Sarmiento during February visit to an orphanage, is facing mounting criticism for his economic plan and his attempts to amend the constitution.