Anger and hurt
Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Ejercito Estrada surrendered on Monday, after the Sandiganbayan antigraft court issued a warrant of arrest for him, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of self-possession. This was in sharp contrast to last Friday’s spectacle, when his close friend, Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., surrendered in a dramatic extravaganza of his own making (his own video crew included).
The contrast was clearest in the photographs that immediately circulated after the senators’ “mug shots” were taken. Revilla had a smile on his face, while Estrada glared at the camera.
Are we making too much of the difference? Revilla was self-evidently playing to the gallery: hearing Mass on the morning of his surrender, worrying about migraine, complaining about conditions in the Camp Crame custodial center. Estrada kept his emotions in check, reserving them or rather concentrating them to make one point: The unfairness of so-called selective justice.
We do not agree that Estrada, Revilla and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, the third incumbent senator to be charged with plunder, have been singled out by the Aquino administration; rather, the whistle-blowers who broke the pork barrel scam story wide open and the available evidence all pointed in their direction. Why shouldn’t the authorities follow their lead?
But we can understand Estrada’s perspective, and realize that, between the two friends now spending time together in detention, Estrada’s demeanor is the more potentially dangerous one. Yes, Revilla has millions of fans who will follow his fate. Yes, he is pushing the buttons his support base respond to: the fall in his personal circumstances, the support of his loving family, the sheer entertainment value of his legal saga. But it is Estrada’s look of anger and hurt that might generate a backlash, move his own supporters to take to the streets.
We should remember that it was the 2001 arrest of Estrada’s father, deposed president Joseph Estrada, which led to the outburst of violence right outside Malacañang Palace on May 1 that year—the misnamed “Edsa Tres.” The mass following of his father has contracted over the years, but it has remained potent enough to elect members of his family to the Senate and to carry him to second place in the 2010 presidential elections. It is a sorry mistake to underestimate his clout or that of his family, or the Estradas’ capacity to make political capital out of what they allege as political persecution.
Revilla may have grabbed more airtime and social media space than Estrada in the turbulent first days after their surrender (his wife, Rep. Lani Mercado, even played a role in directing public attention to her husband’s reduced circumstances inside Camp Crame), but it is possible that Estrada’s silent sullenness will be the lasting image from this first, extraordinary week.
It behooves President Aquino, then (to use a verb the President seems to be fond of), to handle the situation with the right, delicate touch. He can manage the anger, the suspicions, of the senators’ support bases by directing the Philippine National Police to be fair as possible in the treatment of the senators, and (equally important) to be perceived as fair. But he can also soothe frayed nerves and allay the supporters’ worst fears by being as strict as possible with his own allies implicated in the pork barrel scam.
The noises Aquino administration officials have made about Tesda Director General Joel Villanueva, for example, about how he may have been wrongly included in the second batch of cases for the abuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (when he was a partylist representative) because his signatures were supposedly forged, are adding to a volatile mix. Let Villanueva or any other administration ally included in the cases plead their case before the Sandiganbayan. Letting him off on the say-so of administration officials he is allied with plays directly into Estrada’s look of anger and hurt, and his accusations of selective justice.
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