Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada visited one of Manila's poorest districts yesterday for the first time since he was ousted more than six years ago to thank his supporters a week after being pardoned for graft.
"I love all of you," Estrada told a gathered crowd in impoverished Vitas district.
"Erap can never repay his debt of gratitude to the poor. If not for the poor, Erap will not be where he is," he said, referring to himself by his popular nickname.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pardoned Estrada, 70, on Oct. 25 -- six weeks after an anti-graft court sentenced him to life in prison for plunder through kickbacks and illegal gambling payoffs following a six-year trial.
After accepting the pardon, Estrada promised to stay out of "dirty politics" and vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to helping the poor. He insisted on his innocence, saying he may have committed "mistakes" as a public servant, but "never" corruption.
Estrada waved to the crowd, occasionally throwing candies at them and reaching out to shake hands from the back of a pickup truck.
He brought along volunteer doctors, including his wife -- a physician and former senator -- to give free medical services and medicines. He also invited residents to apply for scholarships with his foundation.
A brass band played as the crowd greeted Estrada with chants of "Erap pa rin!" (We are still for Erap), holding up his presidential portrait and homemade placards to welcome him.
Estrada, who endeared millions of poor Filipinos as a movie actor who often portrayed underdog heroes, won with the largest margin in any Philippine presidential election in 1998.
He was forced to step down amid massive protests in the country's second "people power" revolt in January 2001, about two months after he was impeached on alleged corruption.
Critics say Arroyo was more concerned about political survival than justice when she pardoned her predecessor.
A Senate inquiry on Thursday heard testimony implicating Arroyo and her husband in bribery and kickbacks in the awarding of a national broadband contract to a Chinese company. She was also facing a third impeachment bid and calls for her resignation, and her government has been accused of ordering political killings.
While Arroyo has not directly responded to the corruption charges, her spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, has said these will not distract from her efforts to improve the economy. A spokesman for her husband has denied any role in the broadband deal, which was eventually canceled by Arroyo.
Writing for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, sociologist and political commentator Randy David said the pardon was a "clever political move" by Arroyo.
"She stands to gain more from it than the convict she has pardoned," David said. "She may indeed lose whatever remaining support she still enjoys among the ... middle classes, but that is a small price to pay for throwing the opposition in disarray and defanging its most militant segment -- the mass followers of Erap."