Noynoy Aquino Tipped to Win Philippine Election


By SIMON ROUGHNEEN – A presidential race on May 10 depicted as a run-off between a saint, a CEO and a faded movie star is being overshadowed by worries over a computerized vote-counting system.

In a first for the Philippines, a country with intermittent electricity supply and a history of electoral fraud, a computerized system is being used instead of the manual count used in most other countries. Although 11th-hour glitches meant the recall and re-programming of 76,000 flash cards used to scan votes in the optical scan machines, the electoral oversight body, Comelec, remained confident that “the elections will go through,” according to Comelec chair Jose Melo.

Whether the equipment will be ready and distributed in time across the whole archipelago remains to be seen. However Comelec is resisting calls from candidates and media to conduct a manual count in parallel and as a back-up to the computerized alternative.
The “saint” in question is Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino, the son of former president and democracy icon Cory, who died in August 2009. A poll published on Friday put Mr. Aquino on 41 percent, more than double that of the second-place candidate. Aquino has capitalized on the family lineage, an aura of heroism and clean hands that dates back to the 1986 People’s Power Revolution, in a country listed by Transparency International, a respected corruption monitor, as more graft-prone than Pakistan or Liberia.

The saintly epithet was applied—ruefully and sardonically—by the “CEO” rival candidate Manny Villar. His rags-to-riches story puts him at odds, he says, with Aquino, who comes from a political dynasty rooted in the Filipino landed elite. Speaking at a rally on Thursday, Villar recounted, as a seven-year-old child, helping his mother selling fish at a market, in contrast to Aquino’s upbringing

Villar has been president of the Filipino senate since 2006. He touts himself as the builder of a US $220 million-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 percent per annum on average.

Is Villar a new type of politician? A self-made Thaksin-esque figure ready to challenge an oligarchy? Some say no. Already a long time senator, “his wealth has elevated him into the elites,” a criticism made of Thaksin by those in Thailand who opposed his administration and resented his nouveau-riche brashness.. According to Eugene Martin, a former US diplomat and former executive director of the USIP Philippine Facilitation Project, Villar says his wealth “allows him to not depend on contributions from interest groups and individuals, but you don’t see signs of new voices or ideas.”

“I will foster a very competitive environment and demand results,” he says. Aquino, by contrast, is deemed a less dynamic figure, with few accomplishments of note during his political career to date. 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, whose own party candidate, Gilberto Teodoro, languishes in fourth place and seems out of the running.

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 Estrada at 20 percent, 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 jailed for corruption offenses and abuse of office. Nonetheless, he is a live 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 Arroyo.

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 when she was accused of rigging the general election in 2004. Seeking re-election, Arroyo was recorded discussing her presumed victory with the then Comelec head, before the votes had been counted.
Having eluded that scandal and alleged widespread vote-buying on Mindanao, she 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, Arroyo is running for parliament now, 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, Arroyo is hoping to acquire enough allies in parliament and the judiciary to set up a de facto opposition to the next president. Whether this succeeds remains to be seen. In the country’s ephemeral and personality-oriented party system, MPs often seek links with the president. If Noynoy is a clear winner, she may struggle. Eugene Martin believes that 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.”

Election hopes are being tempered with what cynical Filipinos might term a conspiracist reality. The credibility of the process has come under question, as Comelec and Smartmatic/TIM—the company that won the tender to implement the hi-tech ballot system— struggle to get the computerized system ready on time.
The word on the street—a theater 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, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday evening. “One way or another, votes can go missing here or appear from nowhere.”

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

But under the shadow of an untried and so far faulty computer system, fears are growing that the real outcome might be undermined, and the electorate traduced. Noynoy 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 he said, “If we have a correct counting of the votes, I think we will be very victorious.”

So it seems. 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 savior? Beatification may be premature, however, as irrespective of good intentions, it may be beyond Aquino to carry out effective reform of how politics is conducted and the economy structured.

If change is coming, it may be in the future. There are some “Young Turks” coming through the ranks, according to Mon Casiple, the executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. Even though most of the candidates are from traditional political families, there are “more and more young generation politicians taking over from the older, more traditional politicians,” Casiple told The Irrawaddy.

Even so, a big Aquino win might not be enough for him to push a reformist program. Based at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank that analyzes international relations across Asia, Malcolm Cook is a long-time watcher of politics in the Philippines. He is pessimistic about Aquino’s prospects, telling The Irrawaddy that “most see him as not a forceful figure, though I think he is the best of the three main candidates.”

Cook added: “It is really more the system in the Philippines rather than who wins the election that is important and the root of the country’s deep political problems.”

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One Response to Noynoy Aquino Tipped to Win Philippine Election

  • asyong says:

    Urgent: Quezon Gov. Rafael Nantes, who as treasurer of the Liberal Party raised PhP5 BILLION in funds for the campaign of Sen. BENIGNO AQUINO III, has been implicated in a large drugs factory complex on Ilicong island, Quezon raided by the PASG on Thursday. For details see MANILA BULLETIN today 5/9/2010 Page 4. Police uncovered documented millions in bank money transfer to Aquino and political allies. A PNP report links Noynoy financial backers to RP narco-politics. Pls pass the alarm.

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