No deus ex machina in Manila – ISN

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A presidential race depicted as a run-off between a saint, a CEO and a faded movie-star is being overshadowed by worries over a computerised vote-counting system.

On the way out: Arroyo billboard near old city of Intramuros in Manila (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

On the way out: Macapagal-Arroyo billboard near Intramuros in Manila (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

MANILA — In a first for The Philippines – a country with intermittent electricity supply and a history of electoral fraud – a computerised system is being used instead of the manual count used in most other countries.

Despite 11th-hour glitches that meant the recall and re-programming of 76000 flash cards used to scan votes in the optical scan machines, the electoral oversight body (Comelec) remains confident that “the elections will go through”, according to Comelec chair Jose Melo.

It is still not clear, however, whether the equipment will be ready and distributed across the whole archipelago in time. The elections commission nonetheless is resisting calls from candidates and media to conduct a manual count in parallel and as a back-up to the computerised alternative, as Filipinos prepare to vote for a successor to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, choosing from 3 main contenders have been described as a saint, a CEO and a movie star.

The ‘saint’ in question is Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino, son of former President and democracy icon Cory, who died in August 2009. A poll published  put Mr Aquino on 41%, over double that of the second-place candidate. Aquino has capitalised on the family lineage – an aura of martyrdom, heroism and clean hands dating back to the 1986 People’s Power Revolution – in a country listed by Transparency International as more graft-prone than Pakistan or Liberia.

The saintly epithet was applied – ruefully and sardonically – by the ‘CEO’ rival candidate Manny Villar, whose own rags-to-riches story puts him at odds, he feels, with Aquino. Speaking at a rally on Thursday, Mr Villar recounted, as seven year old, helping his mother selling fish at a market – a marked contrast to Aquino’s aristocratic background.

However Aquino’s unassuming demeanour and apparent disinterest in personal wealth have boosted his populariry and allayed concerns that he is just another venal high flyer.

Villar has president of the Senate since 2006. He touts himself as the builder of US$220m per annum business, saying that he can do something similar for the Philippines, which is has seen overall levels of poverty increase over the last decade, even as the economy grew by around 5% per annum on average.

Is Villar a new type of politician, a self-made entrepreneur ready to challenge an oligarchy in the style of Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who made fortune in business before revolutionising the country’s political system by trouncing the country’s old elites in elections?

Some say yes, some say no. Already a long time senator, “his wealth has elevated him into the elites”, according to Eugene Martin, echoing a criticism made of Thaksin by those in Thailand who opposed his administration and resented his nouveau-riche brashness.

Martin, a former US diplomat and former executive director of the USIP Philippine Facilitation Project, sees Villar as pitching his wealth as a positive: it“allows him to not depend on contributions from interest groups and individuals,” Mr Martin said.

Mr Aquino, by contrast, is deemed a less-dynamic figure, with few accomplishments of note during his political career . However, he has been assertive on the campaign trail, successfully tarnishing Villar as having at least tacit support from the deeply-unpopular incumbent, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Arroyo’s own party candidate Gilberto Teodoro languishes in fourth place, and seems out of the running.

On the way in? Aquino supporters in Quezon City (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Villar’s glossy and expensive TV-oriented campaign has not paid off, it seems, and “Villarroyo”, as Aquino has dubbed him, looks set to finish a distant second. It might get worse: if the swing in opinion shown in recent polls is maintained on May 10 when Filipinos go to the polls, he may cede the runners-up slot to former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, an aging, high-living movie star who made his own political career partly out of an image of being in touch with the common man. Friday morning’s poll put Mr Estrada at 20%, one point ahead of Villar.

But Estrada personifies a chutzpah that runs through politics in the Philippines. Ousted in 2001 by the People’s Power II street protests, ‘Erap’ was subsequently jailed over corruption offences and abuse of office. Nonetheless, he is candidate, and is not alone in shrugging-off a controversial history. Imelda Marcos, widow of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator driven from power in 1986, is chasing a Congressional seat.

She will be joined by another formidable matriarch of Filipino politics – outgoing President Macapagal-Arroyo. In 2001, feet on the street brought her into office as a replacement for Estrada, but her nine-year administration has been marred with controversy, most notoriously the “Hello Garci” scandal in 2004. That year, when running to hold onto the presidency she won in 2001 on the back of street protestors, Macapagal-Arroyo was recorded discussing her presumed victory with the head of the national election commission — before the votes had been counted.

The president then spent much of 2009 pushing a constitutional amendment that would switch the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. Prevented from running again for President, Macapagal-Arroyo is now running for parliament — though the failure of her constitutional reform gambit means that she cannot retain power in a Putin-esque switch of roles to prime minister.

However the outgoing president is hoping to acquire enough allies in parliament and the judiciary to set up a de facto opposition to the next president. In the country’s ephemeral and personality-oriented party system, MPs often seek links with the President.

“The almost universal hatred she has generated will undermine her efforts to build an alternative power base. But it also depends on who is elected and his ability to attract political support,” Eugene Martin said.

If, as seems likely, Aquino emerges a clear winner, Macapagal-Arroyo may struggle to forge the alliances she needs to fulfil her plans.

But before the votes are cast, the credibility of the election process has been coming under question, as the election commission and Smartmatic/TIM –- the company that won the tender to implement the hi-tech ballot system — struggle to get the computerised system ready on time.

The word on the street – a theatre for some of the Philippines most evocative and dramatic political moments in the past – is cynical and dead-pan. “I hope you have sharp eyes”, said Carl, a shopkeeper close to the Makati Central Business District in Manila.

“One way or another, votes can go missing here, or appear from nowhere”.

According to a nationwide poll published on April 16, 71% of Filipinos believe vote-buying will take place in their own precincts. Some 51% expect cheating in counting votes, 48% believe there will be “flying voters,” or those who go from precinct to precinct to vote multiple times. 45% expect voter harassment and 37% expect violence . Nonetheless, turnout is predicted to be high, between 75-80%.

But under the shadow of an untried computer system, fears are growing that the real outcome might be undermined. Aquino has threatened to take to the streets if flaws or irregularities are detected. Does that mean he will invoke People Power if he does not win, an outcome he must feel is now almost certain?

Speaking on Thursday, Aquino said, “If we have a correct counting of the votes, I think we will be very victorious.”

But if elected, even in a landslide, can the low-key and apparently-humble scion of two national heroes emerge as the long-awaited national saviour?

Based at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank that analyses international relations across Asia, Malcolm Cook is a long-time watcher of politics in the Philippines. He is pessimistic about Aquino’s prospects, telling this correspondent that “most see him as not a forceful figure, though I think he is the best of the three main candidates”.

Even Aquino’s late mother Cory, who had a mandate to take the country in a new direction after 1986, is regarded as having done too little to untangle or challenge the political dynasties that remain dominant in the Philippines.

“It is really more the system in the Philippines rather than who wins in it that is important and the root of the country’s deep political problems,” said Malcolm Cook.

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