Philippine presidential candidate Joseph E. Estrada has a huge lead in the polls for the elections coming on May 11. While Estrada is overwhelmingly popular with lower classes, many members of the business community fear that he may not be able to continue the economic reforms instituted by President Fidel V. Ramos. Business Week reporter Hugh Filman caught up with the candidate and former movie actor on the campaign trail.
Q: What is your stand on the economic reforms begun under President Ramos?
A: We will continue some of the government policies of the President which improved conditions for the people. I can assure you that our administration is committed to free trade and free market institutions, but our dedication to the poor and the helpless will be unwavering.
Q: What will you do for the poor?
A: Aside from education, we have to concentrate on food security to see to it that every Filipino eats three square meals a day. We will do it by concentrating on agriculture. We can do that because our country is an agricultural country, so I will put more emphasis on irrigation, dams, farm-to-market roads, and post-harvest facilities. We'll give tax exemptions on the needs of the farmers like pesticides, fertilizer, chemicals. So we will really go all-out for our agriculture.
Q: Besides agriculture, what are your other economic priorities in this time of crisis?
A: Of course we will encourage industry in our country, but that will be secondary to agriculture. At the same time, of course, we will go out of our way to lower the interest rates. The unemployment problems are getting worse because of these high interest rates. There are so many laborers being laid off. At the same time, there are no factories coming in to put up new business, so we have strategized that at all costs we have to lower the interest rates.
Q: What will you do to try to encourage investment and reassure foreign investors that in this Asian economic crisis the Philippines will keep on growing?
A: We have to regain the confidence of the foreign investors to show them that we can give them a business climate with all the assistance that the government can give, and we will assure them that we will not change the rules in the middle of the game.
Q: What do you say to opponents who say the business community is concerned about an Estrada presidency?
A: These people are the people who are making money under the Ramos administration. They really don't like to have a change of administration because they are already in place making a lot of money. I've talked to several business leaders: the president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce, the president of ECOP (the Employers Confederation of the Philippines), and so on. I even talked to the president of the stock exchange. They are neutral. Some of them are even for me. This is just black propaganda.
Q: Do you think your administration can make the hard decisions that might make it unpopular?
A: Well that's the advantage I have over all other presidential candidates -- over even the incumbent President. I have the mass support of the people so I can do it.
Q: What about the peace and order issue, which is concerning the business community -- especially kidnappings?
A: I vow that within six months of my presidency, I will restore peace and order in our country. I'll make myself responsible for all of this as President.
Q: What will you do to that you hadn't been able to do as head to the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission?
A: I will tell you these things when I am President. I cannot be very specific now. But I can tell you that I'll do it, and in my experience as the former chairman of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission, I think I know what to do.
Q: President Ramos was very much a hands-on micromanager. How would manage as President?
A: In my experience, I delegate my powers. I make sure that the people around me are competent, dedicated, honest, and know their job. And then once I delegate, they are all answerable to me. That's how I managed San Juan [a part of Metro Manila] when I was mayor and it proved fruitful. I made San Juan a model town.
Q: The poor seem to be your main supporters in this election campaign. Why are the masses so overwhelmingly behind you?
A: Maybe my being a former movie actor contributes to that. But as a public figure, I have my track record: as a Mayor, as a Senator and as Vice-President -- 28 years in public service. I am indentified with them. Most of my projects are pro-poor. Not only during election time. Even before I entered public service, I was the president, chairman, and founder of the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation for the less fortunate members of the movie industry.
When I became Mayor [of San Juan district in Manila], I continued to have pro-poor projects. For example, I provided a [squatter] resettlement area for 1,850 families. I was the only mayor who was able to do that and give them free high school -- way back in 1969. We gave them health centers complete with free doctors and nurses, and free medicine. So these are the things that I have done. And when I was senator, I was the author of pro-poor bills. So I am identified with them in the movies and public service. For 28 years, my track record as a public official remained unblemished. I'm never linked with graft and corruption or any kind of anomaly.
Q: What about the business community? How important is its support to you?
A: They're the engine of growth of our economy, so I'll give them the best climate for running business -- lessen the regulation of the government and the restrictions and so forth. I have to support business because without business where will we get our money to support our projects for the poor? My vision is to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and to build a strong middle class.
Q: Are you expecting strong resistance in doing that from the upper classes of society?
A: I believe so, but then it takes a leader to do that.
Q: Is the masses' support enough to carry you over the top through this election?
A: At this moment, this point in time, yes.
Q: Who are you considering for your economic management team if you are elected?
A: I have my running mate, Senator Angara. We will discuss it. This is our agreement -- that I will consult him from time to time about our economy, about education.
Q: What do you think have been the main issues in this election so far?
A: Economics, graft and corruption, peace and order.
Q: Some critics have expressed concern about your reported vices: drinking, womanizing, and gambling. How do you respond?
A: What vices? I have only one vice now: smoking.
Q: The Lakas party has a lot more candidates overall than your political coalition. Are you concerned that you might get an uncooperative Congress if you come to power?
A: That's part of the leadership by example I'll show the Congress. If the leadership can sacrifice, then I believe the congressmen can also sacrifice. I'll lead by example.
Q: Do you think your support among the masses would help push an uncooperative Congress?
A: Definitely, definitely. If the representatives of the people, the Congress, can feel that I have the support of the masses, I think they would give in because they know that in three years they have to run for reelection.
Q: Are you concerned about negative statements by Catholic Cardinal Jaime Sin that seem to question your fitness to lead and discourage people from voting for you?
A: No, not one bit. Cardinal Sin is expressing his own opinion. He is not expressing the opinion of the Church hierarchy. It is his own opinion and in a democratic form of government, everybody is free to express his or her own opinion.
Q: Are you now fully prepared to be President?
A: I would not even think of running for President if I was not prepared. Of all the presidential candidates, I think I have the most experience because I've been a local executive for 16 years, then six years as a senator and now six years as Vice-President. I have experience attending Cabinet meetings because I was given a Cabinet rank, chairman of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. So I have all this experience as an executive and a legislator. I think that's my advantage over all the other presidential candidates.