SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

A day without laughter is a day wasted. That’s Charlie Chaplin, quoted directly by former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada.

Meeting with STAR editorial staff the other day in our Manila office for a holiday chat, Mayor Erap made sure we all had a good laugh. He regaled us with the apocryphal story behind the construction of the bridge in Sta. Mesa with no water under it – what turned out to be the Philippines’ first flyover.

Complete with a regional intonation, Erap said irate residents asked, “Bakit dito may tulay, wala namang tubig (Why is there a bridge here when there is no water)?”

Mayor Erap, the man who loves women, narrated that Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon kept a mistress in the Broadway neighborhood beyond the railroad tracks of Sta. Mesa. But first lady Aurora kept MLQ on a short leash, and the president’s window to sneak out of Malacañang was only during his wife’s siesta time, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Mayor Erap told us that one afternoon the frisky MLQ failed to visit his inamorata after a train broke down on the railroad crossing (MRT, hindi ka nag-iisa). Forced to return to Malacañang, MLQ summoned his public works chief and ordered a bridge built over the railroad tracks. And that, Mayor Erap said, is the history of the Sta. Mesa bridge, one of the few structures that survived the destruction of Manila during World War II.

He narrated the story to prove his point that like him, all Philippine presidents had mistresses: “Lahat naman ng presidente, may chicks.”

What about Noynoy Aquino the bachelor President? “Ay, ewan ko,” Erap replied with a chuckle.

He’s clearly no fan of the administration that put his son in detention and kicked out his nephew ER Ejercito from the post of Laguna governor for overspending in the 2013 campaign. All candidates overspend, Erap told us, but only his nephew has been ousted for it.

Erap rose from his seat and, being the FAMAS Best Actor that he is, regaled us with a pretty good impersonation of the way presidents walk past honor guards. There’s Fidel Ramos the West Pointer, stern looking and ramrod straight. There’s Erap portraying himself, the slaphappy actor ambling along in a near-slouch, with a wide pang-masa grin, waving to the fans. And then there’s P-Noy, with a sort-of-permanent grin, strolling along as if he had just undergone – according to Erap – the Pinoy equivalent of a berkhatan coming-of-age rite.

* * *

After surviving six years in detention for plunder, with his son held without bail again, the self-described ex-convict Manila mayor is as cheerful as ever, outlining his plans for a second term at city hall while at the same time defending his actions during his aborted presidency.

Erap is particularly defensive about the assault on Moro Islamic Liberation Front camps, which he said he ordered after the rebels rejected his peace overtures and even launched deadly attacks on civilians including children.

Today, he said, people don’t feel safe and the government is unable to enforce laws in many areas. “We have a very weak government,” he said.

The loss of more than half of his presidency still seems to rankle. Erap wants to be called “former president” before “mayor.” He still wears a wristband with the seal of the Office of the President.

His English is fluent; I’ve always believed that his “Eraptions” are just an act. And he is as well groomed as only movie stars used to being fussed over can be, with not a single strand of hair out of place.

In this election year, all the presidential wannabes are surely considering the Erap factor in assessing potential votes. At the height of the corruption scandal that eventually kicked him out of Malacañang, Erap maintained a solid support base of over 30 percent, according to reputable nationwide surveys.

When the Supreme Court did not stop him from seeking the presidency again in 2010, it was Erap who ranked second to Noynoy Aquino, who won by 5.77 million votes.

Is that 30 percent solid national support intact? “Hopefully,” Erap said.

Whatever national voter support he still has, however, will no longer be for himself. Erap swears he’s no longer interested, cross his heart, in a third stab at Malacañang. Instead he will campaign for a new president and vice president this year. So far he’s made up his mind on his vice president: Bongbong Marcos.

As for the president, Erap’s choice, he says, is “secret.” He’s widely believed to be for the daughter of his late bosom buddy Fernando Poe Jr., Grace Poe.

If she is disqualified, the betting is Erap will endorse Vice President Jejomar Binay of the United Nationalist Alliance. But there is also speculation that if given an offer he can’t refuse, possibly involving his detained son Jinggoy, Erap might go for administration bet Mar Roxas. As one political opponent sniffed, Erap is for no one but Erap.

* * *

The Manila mayor shares the view of his successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. GMA once told STAR editors that one could work hard for the presidency only up to a certain point; the rest is destiny. Fate dropped power into the lap of GMA, and fate pulled it out of Erap’s. He prefers the word “providential.”

Erap’s life has nurtured that belief. His nine siblings were all professionals – doctors, lawyers, business graduates. Tasked to be the family engineer, he was the only child who dropped out of college, after grappling with integral calculus in his junior year.

His mother Mary, a disciplinarian, was furious. “Drum-drum na puñ…a ang tinanggap ko doon,” Erap told us.

Yet the dropout was the one who became president. Today his chats are still filled with what he thinks should be the priorities of a Philippine president: keep the people safe, provide smooth roads and sufficient infrastructure, and keep the surroundings clean.

Without peace and order, he said, economic growth is not possible. He cited the country’s neighbors, which have overtaken the Philippines in many human and economic development indicators. The next president, he said, must have a keen sense that the country is competing with the rest of the world.

That’s also the wish of many voters at the start of this election year. Much will depend on our choices in May. The New Year bodes hope for positive change.

All the blessings of the New Year to everyone!


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