A Philippines Election Works

With a chaotic Filipino election now history except for the final counting, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo heaved a sigh of relief when she fed her ballot into a machine – an expression so spontaneous it captured what many Filipinos were hoping for in the country's first automated elections.

At 7:30 am on Tuesday, with 71 percent of the votes counted, Benigno Aquino III had taken 40.58 percent of the votes, followed by disgraced former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada with 25.72 percent. The man expected to pose the strongest challenge to Aquino -- Manuel Villar -- had fallen to a distant third with only 13.85 percent. In the vice presidential race, Jejomar Binay, the Makati mayor, scored a major upset over Manual A. Roxas.

Comelec, the Philippines Commission on Elections, had promised a result within 36 hours and it appeared it would be able to deliver on that promise. In any case, against the direst predictions, partly because an ad hoc army of technicians worked overtime in trying to make the machines work, there should be a credible result. Although results have varied across the country's 76,000 precincts, redundancies were generally in place and activated to resolve the most worrisome issues.

Aquino had to wait nearly five hours before a glitch in the machine, known as the PCOS or Precinct Count Optical Scan – which had been controversial enough in the weeks leading to the voting – could be sorted out. This, too, reflected a fair amount of anxiety over the process of going high-tech in a rush for time against long delays, which in previous elections took weeks before the results were known, loaning the process to endemic corruption.

The turnout was relatively peaceful overall despite the punishing heat, the long lines, the slow, disorienting pace and the fact that in some of the country's more obstreperous districts, election monitors were afraid to appear and that bullets and occasional rocket rounds were flying near some pollingplaces. It was later reported that about 300 machines were defective and would have to be replaced, according to Comelec, and that violence erupted in a few towns in Lanao del Sur province in the south, part of the autonomous Muslim region where elections in the past had failed.

This election will bring in a new president, a vice president, senators, members of congress, and a host of local seats. It has raised huge expectations. Not only is it experimenting with automation, it will also choose a new leader after nine years of Arroyo's unpopular government.

"The first task is to elect a new president to replace the most reviled administration since the hated dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown," wrote Amando Doronila, a respected political analyst in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The second task, however, is to see whether the new president, whoever he may be, can lead a nation mired in corruption, factionalism, warlord politics and a tendency on the part of the star-struck electorate to vote for movie stars, prize-fighters and assorted other celebrities in the supposition that they can transcend their miniskirts, boxing gloves and pompadours to run the country. In the past, those elected have shown precious little ability to do more than fill their pockets

President Arroyo has shown that politics is not done for her. She is running for a seat in the House of Representatives in her hometown Pampanga district in a clear indication that she seeks to retain her influence -- with critics saying she wants to do so to avoid jail time because of the massive corruption she and her husband, the "First Gentleman," Miguel "Mike" Arroyo engendered in her eight years in power.

Aquino's margin very closely resembled his lead in the polls, riding on the crest of the popularity of his late mother, former president Corazon Aquino, whose death from cancer last August pushed her son to seek the presidency. The fray has had twists and turns of the political drama typical of Philippine elections, which counts on personal popularity, blurred party lines and ideology. It is usually a fight among the oligarchs, political clans that have led the country since independence from American colonial rule. This time the downtrodden have joined the fight, but many Filipinos see little difference in the governance of a largely feudal system undermining an already weak democracy.

Even the wife and children of the late odious dictator Ferdinand Marcos are running for seats in the House and they may well win, a prospect that is too difficult to explain to the outside world about a people too forgiving of leaders who have plundered their country. But it is all part of the color and soap opera of the Philippines' political life.

"It's all the same, the rich ones and the poor ones," said Romeo Mag-isa, a former science teacher turned taxi driver, "they join politics for an enterprise in making money. Corruption is a big problem. Just look at Imelda, she was a poor girl. See what happened to her" – a reference to the flamboyant woman that she became known to be.