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Close Up Erap's Last Stand: Revisiting President Joseph Estrada's Final Days In The Malacañan Palace

Erap's Last Stand: Revisiting President Joseph Estrada's Final Days In The Malacañan Palace

17 January 2001EDSA crowd at anti-Erap rally.MIKE ALQUINTO
The Estrada-Resign movement at a prayer rally at the EDSA Shrine
By Tatler Philippines
July 28, 2020
What were the last days of President Estrada's administration like? What really went on behind Malacañang's walls? Noted columnist and writer Amado Doronila reveals the events that prematurely ended the President's term in the Tatler Philippines book exclusive

This feature story was originally titled as A President's Las Stand, and was published in the July 2002 issue of Tatler Philippines. After a lengthy trial, the Sandiganbayan ruled former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada not guilty of perjury while ruling him as guilty of plunder and sentenced him to reclusión perpetua. On 25 October 2007, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo granted executive clemency to Joseph Estrada based on the recommendation by the Department of Justice. On 26 October 2007, after almost seven years of detention, Joseph Estrada was finally released after the Sandiganbayan promulgated the resolution. Estrada was later elected Mayor of Manila and served from 2013 to 2019.

The last two days of President Estrada in Malacañang following the collapse of his government, triggered by the military and police defection, created a power vacuum that opened the gates to challenges to the constitutional legitimacy of the successor government.

Although the military withdrawal, followed quickly by the resignation of most of the Cabinet members, crippled the government, there remained the question of negotiating the terms of his removal.

The best available source so far of Estrada's last two days in the palace comes from the diary of Edgardo Angara, who only 13 days earlier had been shifted from the Department of Agriculture and made executive secretary and given vast powers to halt the growing paralysis of government.

30 June 1998President Joseph Estrada takes his oath before Supreme Court Chief Justice Andres Narvasa at the historic Barasoain Church, Malolos, Bulacan.ERNIE U. SARMIENTO (oath1)
Estrada's oath-taking before Chief Justice Andres Narvasa on 30 June 1998 at the Barasoain Church in Bulacan with former First Lady, now Senator Loi Ejercito

According to Angara, Estrada asked his lawyers at 8 AM on Friday to request the senate impeachment tribunal to open the second envelope. Angara sounded out Estelito Mendoza, the president's lawyer, and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan. "If that is the president's decision, we can't do anything," the senators said. The president and his legal and political advisers agreed to issue a statement about the opening of the envelope.

At 2:45 PM, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel and Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella were called to the palace for consultation on calling a snap election. Pimentel said there were technical difficulties since "the position of vice president is not vacant". Angara thought the snap election was a "last minute effort to defuse the situation and hold back demonstrators" marching towards the palace.

Angara pulled aside Pimentel and asked him to advise the president not to exclude other options. "A dignified exit or resignation might be the best way for him," Angara said. While Pimentel was giving counsel to Estrada, he was at the same time serving as a conduit between the president and ex-President Aquino, through which channel Estrada was getting feedback from the other side.

At 5:30 PM, after Reyes's defection, a taped statement was issued calling for a snap election in which the president would not run.

At around 9:30 PM Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu, a friend and a sort of spiritual adviser to Estrada, arrived. He advised the president to "consider other options", understood to mean resignation and "not to dig in".

At 11 PM Gen. Renato De Villa, from the opposition camp, rang to initiate exit negotiations. Ex-President Ramos also rang to say, "Let's help each other to have a peaceful and orderly transfer of power."

The "Boracay" mansion in Quezon City is only one of several extravagant Estrada properties
The "Boracay" mansion in Quezon City is only one of several extravagant Estrada properties

The first round of negotiations began at 12:20 AM on Saturday, 20 January, when De Villa and his team, composed of Alberto Romulo and Hernando Perez, arrived at Mabini Hall. De Villa submitted a draft resignation letter for the president to sign and asked him to leave the palace before 6 AM "otherwise we cannot control the hotheads in our group" from storming the palace. Angara said the vice president should exercise leadership over her group. He said the president had accepted he would leave the palace but asked for five days to clear out.

De Villa asked why five days and "why can't he leave by 6 AM"? Angara said the reason was that Reyes had promised a five-day transition, in which the president would hand over the presidency to Macapagal-Arroyo. The president could not be pushed to leave the palace earlier.

The opposition was suspicious. "What if the President organises a counterattack in five days?" De Villa said. Angara replied the president did not have that capability, following the defection of the military and the police. Romulo was getting impatient. "My mandate is for you to leave by 6 AM," he said, "otherwise I cannot come back here anymore".

Angara emphasised two points: safe passage for the president and his families, and the opening of the second envelope. Perez asked why it was not opened during the trial, Angara said it was the lawyer's decision. De Villa rejected the opening of the envelope and Perez said the impeachment trial was over.

The meeting ended at 2:20 AM, they agreed to meet again at 6 AM, after De Villa told Angara that at a 7 AM resumption "may be too late, since Malacañang will be attacked at 6 AM." At 2:30 AM, Angara reported to Estrada the results of the negotiations. The president insisted on his five-day grace period and the opening of the envelope to "clear his name".

It was at this point the president was showing exhaustion and his morale appeared to have sunk to its lowest. He said, "Pagod na pagod na ako. Ayoko na... masyado nang masakit. Pagod na ako sa red tape, bureaucracy, intriga. I just want to clear my name, then I'll go." This statement acquired historical significance after it provided one of the important grounds for the Supreme Court decision in March, holding that Macapagal-Arroyo was not an acting president.

Although Angara headed the president's negotiating panel, he was not in complete control as other palace aides were apparently undermining the negotiations, during that meeting, where Enrile was also present. Remulla produced from out of the blue draft addressed to the senate president and the speaker of the House, stating that the president was "unable to discharge the power and duties" of his office and that he was designating Vice President Macapagal-Arroyo as "acting president". Remulla said the letter would allow Estrada to enjoy presidential immunity from suits and to resume the presidency. Angara angrily opposed it.

Angara was upset over two things: the letter was sneaked behind his back while he was negotiating, and he did not like the proposal. He said it could prolong the crisis and could be seen as a sign of bad faith and hanging on to the presidency. Backing Angara, Angelito Banayo, Estrada' political adviser, said the document was ill-advised. Angara and Banayo advised the president against signing the document.

11 October 2000Gov. Chavit Singson shows jueteng payola list during the senate blue ribbon com. hearing.ERIK ARAZAS                                     111000ea2
The whistleblower and erstwhile close friend of Estrada, Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson

Within two hours—from 4 AM and 6 AM—several draft documents were prepared. These were (1) a draft resignation letter prepared by the opposition; (2) five negotiating points prepared by Angara; (3) draft negotiating points prepared by the opposition; (4) five points agreed upon by Angara and Gen. Reyes; (5) a four-point draft agreement between the two parties, together with a draft resignation letter to be signed by the president along the lines of the draft agreement between Angara and Reyes

It was at this point the president was showing exhaustion... "Pagod na pagod na ako. Ayoko na... masyado nang masakit. I just want to clear my name, then I'll go"

The most important element of these drafts is that they contained explicit declarations of the president's intention to resign. The first draft of negotiating points prepared by Angara stated that the transition would take place on 24 January, at which time Estrada "will turn over the presidency" to Macapagal-Arroyo. In return, Estrada and his families "are granted security and safety of their person and property throughout their natural lifetimes" and "are guaranteed freedom from persecution and retaliation from government and the private sector throughout their natural lifetimes".

The commitment is to be guaranteed by the AFP. During the transition period, the AFP and PNP (national police) "shall function under" Vice President Macapagal-Arroyo.

20dec2000///Senator-juror Drilon shows bank record of Jose Velarde from Equitable bank during the trial.
JESS YUSON///201200jy15

Senator and Judge Franklin Drilon holding the Jose Velarde evidence

The United Opposition's negotiating points stated that Estrada "shall sign a resignation document within the day" (20 January), on which day the vice president would assume the presidency. It agreed with the Angara proposal transferring control of the AFP and PNP to the vice president.

This was supposed to be effective on 24 January. This was modified by another draft, which deleted the resignation statement. Instead, it said that the 'transition process' would "commence" on 20 January. But there was a condition: the vice president would issue a public statement saying that "I take this singular opportunity to commend (president Estrada) for his rare display of statesmanship in effecting a peaceful transition".

The document acknowledged that Estrada "has shown steadfast adherence to the Constitution and its processes, with the highest consideration for the national interest" and states that "I salute him and wish that may the true patriot who brought peace to our country in this transition find peace for himself".

This document was signed by Angara and members of his panel and was to be faxed to De Villa's panel. In fact, a draft letter to be sent to Pimentel and Fuentebella categorically stated: "I hereby tender my resignation as president of the republic effective 24 January 2001 in the name of national unity and in order to effect a peaceful transition of power amidst divisive political unrest."

At 6 AM, De Villa phoned Angara and said he would arrive at the palace at 7 AM, but that he wanted Angara to know that "somebody tried to arrange for Gloria's oath-taking at noontime". De Villa said he did not know about this, and "I got mad because it smacks of bad faith in our negotiations. I told them that if they proceeded with the oath, I would resign from the panel."

12 December 2000Senator-jurors, defense counsels and fellow prosecutors huddle around Joker Arroyo during a break in the impeachment trial.JESS YUSON                                 121200jy3
In the middle of all the confusion during the impeachment trial was prosecutor Joker Arroyo

At 7:30 AM, De Villa, Romulo and Renato Corona, a vice-presidential adviser, arrived at the palace. They discussed the drafts, especially that containing the five negotiating points, and the inputs from telephone talks with Reyes, De Villa and Secretary Pardo, who had been receiving feedback from the groups of ex-President Aquino and ex-President Ramos.

Without Angara's knowledge, Remulla had sent the letter, already signed by Estrada, to Pimentel and Fuentebella at 8:30 AM designating Macapagal-Arroyo as "acting president". The letter was sent out while the second round of talks was underway. This document illustrated, first, that the palace officials were moving separately toward contradictory directions and second, that it was an act of bad faith, since it was sent out in the midst of the negotiations. Worst of all, this document threw a spanner in the works. This letter was the fountainhead of the subsequent legal and violent challenges to the legitimacy of the Macapagal-Arroyo accession because it created a constitutional ambiguity over the transition. It planted seeds of conflict that was to plague the successor government.

At 11:20 AM, Angara was set to fax to Reyes and Pimentel the agreement signed by his panel. Then Reyes phoned to say the Supreme Court had decided to swear in Macapagal-Arroyo at 12 noon. Angara told Reyes, "What happens to the agreement?" Reyes said it was all over. Angara said the transition provision had become moot. Angara had the first paragraph containing the proviso for resignation deleted. This explains why the amended draft, which now contained four instead of five points, was silent on resignation.

The amended document, without the resignation proviso, was faxed to Pimentel and Reyes. It is not clear whether it reached De Villa's panel. Angara then told the president the chief justice would swear in Gloria at 12 noon. "He was too stunned for words," Angara said.

As a consequence, all these draft documents came to nought.

From Linden Suites, the opposition nerve centre, which commands a vista of the massed crowds at the EDSA shrine, the view was different. The streets took a life of their own, outside the channel of negotiations over Estrada's exit, and things were moving at their own cadence.

17 January 2001EDSA crowd at anti-Erap rally.MIKE ALQUINTO
The Estrada-Resign movement at a prayer rally at the EDSA Shrine

Following the military withdrawal, the crowds swelled at EDSA, reinforced by delegations from the provinces and the mobilisation of students. The mood of the mass organisations was to march to Malacañan Palace. By late evening of Friday, they had set 6 AM, the next day as the zero hour for the march. The crowds were chanting "Mendiola! Mendiola!"—the name of the street leading to the gates of the presidential palace.

Reporters at Linden Suites noted that on Friday evening opposition Sen. Raul Roco left a conference of opposition leaders presided by the vice president to go to the EDSA shrine. There he informed the rally that they had rejected Estrada's snap election proposal. Roco authorised to say that the opposition had decided to give Estrada until 6 AM to resign otherwise "People Power" would march to the palace.

At 4 AM on Saturday, Supreme Court justice Artemio Panganiban woke up to hear radio and TV reports that opposition and the mass organisations had given Estrada a 6 AM deadline to leave the palace. Panganiban said he learned that even Cardinal Sin was alarmed at the potential for violence, so he phoned Chief justice Hilario Davide at 5:30 AM. Davide was already in his office.

The two justices discussed the possibility of swearing-in Macapagal-Arroyo at midday to avert the march and possible bloodshed. In an interview, Panganiban said he argued with the chief justice that "there was an extraordinary situation requiring an extraordinary solution or innovative decision". Panganiban believed that only Davide could stop bloodshed by swearing in the vice president. After discussing legal issues, Davide told Panganiban to go ahead and phone Macapagal-Arroyo.

He asked Angara if he needed to leave now: "Ed, kailangan ko na bang umalis?" Angara said: "Yes, Mr. President, for your safety and your family's"

At around 6 AM, Panganiban rang Antonio Carpio, legal adviser to the vice president. He told Carpio that the chief justice was willing to administer the oath if Estrada resigned before noon, but that if Estrada did not he would still administer the oath.

At 9 AM Davide received a call from Pimentel, telling him that Estrada had agreed to resign but only after five days. Panganiban asked: "What will happen in five days? This is an invitation to a coup. Who will rule in five days—Erap or Gloria? And by what authority, as a revolutionary government?" Panganiban commented that the country could be plunged into chaos during those five days, with Estrada remaining a powerless president and Macapagal-Arroyo assuming the presidency under a revolutionary state.

20 Jan 2000Ousted President, son JInggoy and daughter Jackie wave goodbye aboard a barge as they leave malacanang palace,VAL HANDUMON,  200101vh3
Erap with son Jinggoy and daughter Jackie Lopez wave goodbye as they leave Malacañang

Also at that time, Macapagal-Arroyo had breakfast with Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino at Villa San Miguel. Sin and Aquino asked her about her plans. The vice president said Estrada had asked for five days. Aquino said: "Take my advice, I've been there. Don't accept the five days."

Pounding the table, the cardinal said, "Gloria, you owe the presidency to the people. And it is the people who want a new president."

Then, Macapagal-Arroyo took a call from De Villa. He said the negotiations had broken down because Angara had reversed everything he had said the previous night and wanted her to write a letter praising Erap. She also received a call from Corona that the talks had bogged down because "there was no letter of resignation".

At that point, she decided to take her oath.

Clearing all doubts, the chief justice swore in Macapagal-Arroyo as president. The papal nuncio was there representing the diplomatic community. He is the dean of the diplomatic corps. The representatives of the key organs of the state—Congress, the Armed Forces, the national police, the political parties, civil society organisations—and Cardinal Sin were all on the overcrowded stage.

Estrada left the palace in shambles. Uneaten fast food meals and half-filled soft drink bottles scattered on the dining tables and on the floor. The pantries were a mess—all signs of hurried departure.

20 January 2001Gloria Macapagal Arroyo takes her oath as the 14th president of the Philippines from SC Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. Senate Pres. Nene Pimentel holds the mike while GMA's husband looks on.EDWIN BACASMAS
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is sworn in as the 14th President of the Republic by Chief Justice Davide

The following Monday, 22 January, the Supreme Court published its resolution saying that its members, acting on the request of the vice president, "unanimously confirm the authority (they have) given to the chief justice on 20 January, to administer the oath of office to Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as President of the Philippines, at noon of 20 January 2001".

Estrada had not, meanwhile, left the palace. The crowd at EDSA was getting restless. A few hundred unruly group of Estrada supporters, recruited from the urban poor, were demonstrating early in favour of Estrada, forming human barricades. There were disturbances and minor pitch battles as more anti-Estrada demonstrates approached Mendiola. When the Manila police lifted the barriers on the roads leading to the palace, and after the defection of the police and the military, the pro-Estrada hooligans were demoralised. They dispersed toward and melted into the small streets of the university belt. They knew they no longer had protection.

Although General Reyes rang to assure Estrada he could stay for another five days, the president lost heart. He asked Angara if he needed to leave now: "Ed, kailangan ko na bang umalis?" Angara said: "Yes, Mr. President, for your safety and your family's."

At 1:40 PM, the presidential security locked the sentry gate. General Reyes had arrived to escort the president out of the palace. At 2:30 PM, the president and his family took a barge to cross the Pasig River, and journeyed in a caravan to his home on Polk St., San Juan, escorted by security forces.

Estrada left the palace in shambles. Uneaten fast food meals and half-filled soft drink bottles scattered on the dining tables and on the floor. The pantries were a mess—all signs of hurried departure.

But the final letter throwing doubt on the legitimacy of the new government left a time bomb that was to explode into a rebellion within four months.

Amando Doronila is a noted journalist and an editorial consultant for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. His book The Fall of Joseph Estrada was published by Anvil Publishing, Inc. and the Philippine Daily Inquirer Inc.


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