Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 August 2009
On July 1, 1998, after appearing in almost 150 movies and spending almost thirtyyears in public service, actor and politician Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada was elected president of the Philippines. Once in office, he not only continued living like a movie star but used government funds to enrich himself, his mistresses, and his cronies. Just three years after his landslide victory, Estrada was ousted in a popular uprising. In a country besieged by generations of political corruption, Estrada's crimes and lifestyle proved the perfect lightning rod for the country's first attempt to hold a head of state accountable for crimes committed while in office.
During Estrada's trial, many worried that the Philippine antigraft court, the Sandiganbayan, would be unable to muster sufficient institutional independence to convict Estrada. In addition, they suspected that Estrada's lenient treatment and the frequent trial delays were a response to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's political fragility. Yet to the amazement of many, Estrada's trial demonstrated that the Philippine judiciary could deliver justice.
But old habits die hard. After Estrada's conviction, President Arroyo, then looking for a way to divert attention from one of her own corruption scandals, delivered a pardon so swift that the result now feels like a return to corrupt politics as usual.