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Asia-Pacific
The Philippines decides
Personality politics and family ties on show as voters face bewildering choice.
Last Modified: 09 May 2010 03:05 GMT
With thousands of candidates and positions up for grabs Filipinos face a bewildering choice [EPA]

Some 50 million Filipinos will be going to the polls on May 10, and it will by no means be an easy feat.

There are about 18,000 positions up for grabs, ranging from village leaders to the national presidency, with more than 85,000 candidates vying to win over the electorate.

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On top of that, for the first time, the elections will be automated and talk is rife that things may not go so smoothly. 

Many remain sceptical not just of the automated process, but how ready the Filipinos themselves might be to work with a new system on such a massive scale.

A large number of voters are considered functionally illiterate, and despite government education campaigns on the new system, most remain unsure of exactly what they might have to do come polling day.

Several tests have been conducted on the new machines - none with satisfactory results - yet authorities are determined that this is the best way forward.

Previous elections have been marred by violence and widespread electoral fraud.  Computerising the polls is the government’s solution to putting an end to that problem; or at least decreasing the possibility of vote-rigging and manipulation.

But this has not put doubts to rest; many here believe that when there's a will, there's a way – and suspicions remain that there are those who will indeed find ways around any system to ensure they get the result they want.

Clan politics

A "lively" democracy, there are no simple party lines in Philippine politics.

Allegiances are fluid and usually built around personalities. A friend today could easily be tomorrow's foe. 

Votes usually ride on a candidate's personal popularity, as opposed to any kind of political platform.

And in many cases, one's popularity relies on a deeply ingrained system of patronage politics where known, wealthy, families keep getting elected and then are expected to "take care" of those less fortunate. 

Poster wars have taken over every corner of the country including slum areas [AFP]

In many areas, political banners display candidates' surnames more boldly than their first names – emphasising that, in a way, a vote does not just go to an individual as much as the family he represents.

In the last Congress, the majority of the seats were held by members of such political clans - families that have made national politics their business, where posts in political office are passed down almost like heirlooms, or birth-rights.

According to recent government statistics, some 200 such clans even run their own private armies, wielding power in their areas of responsibility like feudal lords over fiefdoms.

Last November, at least 57 people were killed in the nation's worst case of political violence.

The massacre in the southern province of Maguindanao was the result of fierce rivalry between two local political families.

The killings shocked Filipinos and caused outrage around the world, and in response a body was created to 'neutralise' such private armed groups.

The task was meant to have been completed before the polls, but by its Chair's own admission that has proven "impossible". 

Across many areas of the country weapons equal power, and there are none too many who are eager to relinquish that.

In some cases, weapons were distributed to these families by the government itself.

The reason seemed patriotic enough at the time – the country is still faced with two of the longest-running insurgencies in the world – an armed communist struggle, and a Muslim separatist rebellion - and the government armed local politicians so they could help battle the rebels.

But on the fringes of that, there is also wide-spread banditry and an as yet undefeated Abu Sayyaf, a notorious armed group responsible for the deadliest attacks on civilians. 

Peace, in a number of areas in the Philippines, remains elusive, and those in positions of leadership see their weapons as a means to maintain the power balance.

Offering change

Despite living up to her promise to stabilise and strengthen the country’s economy, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the outgoing Philippine president, has been the country's most unpopular leader in recent memory.

Promises to tackle poverty and corruption
are widespread [AFP]

Foreign investments came in, but jobs remained hard to come by. 

Ten per cent of the nation's 90 million people work abroad and sustain the economy with the billions of dollars they send back home every year. 

The number of Overseas Filipino Workers continues to rise.  National studies have shown the gap between the rich and poor has only widened, and some 40 per cent of the population remains impoverished. 

These statistics and Arroyo's unpopularity have made it easy for those campaigning in the elections. 

The one thing all candidates have in common is that they have been promising "change" - to be the antidote to the current administration, and its way of doing things, promising an end to poverty, corruption, human rights violations, and patronage politics.

It is the same promise being made by village politicians, all the way up to the presidential contenders.

Legacy politics

And yet the majority of the nine presidential candidates are cut from similar cloth; either descendants of political dynasties themselves, or heads of newly-created ones.

Leading the opinion polls in the run up to the vote is Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino III, whose campaign has capitalised on the legacy of his parents - considered the two most important democratic icons in the Philippines - by promising to fight corruption.

Family ties and a famous name are valuable assets in the poll [Reuters]

Although he never planned on running for the president, he was persuaded to stand on a wave of nostalgia, but many remain sceptical of his abilities to lead and worry that he will turn out to be yet another empty symbol.

Hoping to pull off a last minute surge is billionaire business titan Manny Villar, who poured millions into promoting his image across the country before even announcing his candidacy – handily dodging the country's election campaign rules.

Villar is promising to put his expertise into alleviating the masses from the same poverty he says he faced in his childhood.

But his track record has been anything but spotless and while in the Senate, he faced many investigations into alleged corrupt practices, most of which remain unresolved.

Then there is former movie star action man Joseph Estrada, chomping at Villar's tail and hoping to make one of the country's greatest political comebacks.

After serving many years as a town mayor, Estrada was elected president in 1998 winning the largest margin ever in a Philippine election.

But he was deposed in 2001 in a middle-class uprising amid charges of massive corruption for which he was later convicted, although he was immediately pardoned by Arroyo.

He maintains his innocence and says he is fighting to reclaim what was taken away from him – his right to serve as president.

People Power

The upcoming vote is being held almost 25 years after Filipinos reclaimed democracy through their proudest moment to date – the bloodless 1986 People Power revolt that toppled the Marcos regime.

Then, the nation was Asia's great democratic hope - and yet, it is now right back where it started.  Poverty is still widespread, as are corruption and human rights violations.

Even former leaders convicted of corruption are vying for the presidency [EPA]

There are even more political clans in power now than under Marcos.

These elections are being seen here as the time to decide whether the country will remain floundering in stagnant waters – or finally live up to its believed potential.

Will the polls still be just a superficial popularity contest, or will substance triumph and pave the way for real progress?

There is an electric buzz in the air as polling day fast approaches.

Aside from the fear of using the automated machines for the first time, there is also a nervous exhilaration at the anticipation of doing so.

Results have been promised within three days, but rumours still abound that a failure of elections might be declared, and the current president could remain in power through martial law or other means.

The government has denied this and tried to assure the public otherwise.

At the end of the day, for most Filipinos it is a question of trust - not only whether they can rely on the authorities to do as they say, but also if they can count on each other to take the necessary steps forward, together.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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