Noynoy Lengthens Lead Over Rival

With less than two weeks to go before national elections in the Philippines, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III has widened his lead to 12 points over his top rival, Manuel "Manny" Villar, Jr., according to the latest survey by the respected Social Weather Stations poll.

Although Aquino gained only a single point to 38 percent in the survey, held from April 16 to 19 in partnership with Business World Magazine, Villar dropped three points to 26 percent. Joseph "Erap" Estrada, the disgraced former president whom President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pardoned after being convicted of corruption in 2001, lost ground as well, with his numbers falling from19 percent to 17 percent. Gilberto Teodoro, theoretically Arroyo's candidate, improved at the expense of both, but remained at only 9 percent. Under the Philippines electoral system, the candidate first past the post wins. There is no runoff.

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It is difficult to say what Aquino's projected win might mean for the country – if in fact he does, since elections often go to die on the island of Mindanao in a welter of vote-buying and falsification. Aquino is regarded much like his mother, who, although she was personally the picture of honesty and was credited with bringing democracy back to the country, was a generally ineffective leader. She survived seven coup attempts and left the country much as she had found it when the strongman Ferdinand Marcos was driven from power in 1986. Her son has little to show for his 12-year of political in the House and Senate.

Despite his own reputation for honesty, Noynoy has been criticized for his and his family's obstruction to land reform of their 7,500 hectare estate, Hacienda Luisita, which has been the subject of a series of attempts at redistribution. In 2004, frustration over the property led to a clash with government troops and farmers that led to the deaths of 12 farmers and two children, as well as the injury of hundreds of others. As his mother was, Noynoy is a product of the Filipino aristocracy and it is a question whether he is interested in really shaking up the social order, if indeed he could in the face of what promises to be opposition from members of his own social class and from Arroyo.

Nonetheless, the polling results appear to indicate that Aquino's hard-hitting campaign to tie Villar to Arroyo's soiled coattails is gaining traction. According to the latest polls, her popularity has sunk to unprecedented levels, with the lowest approval rating in modern times. Arroyo has called the two "Villarroyo" and charged that the president has quietly abandoned her own candidate, Gibo Teodoro, to back Villar. Certainly a flock of Arroyo supporters have abandoned her Lakas-NUCD Party to endorse Villar despite his vociferous denials of any connection to the president.

Arroyo probably has indeed ditched Teodoro, at age 45 the youngest candidate, who appears to be in the race to position himself for the next poll in 2016. Arroyo herself is running for a House seat in her native Pampanga state and, given her clout, is certain to win. She is expected to be almost immediately enthroned as House Speaker, say Manila sources, and intends to do her utmost to govern the country from the legislature, whatever the president-elect may want.

As Asia Sentinel reported on March 23, Arroyo is seeking to pack the lower house with former members of her administration, family members and other allies. The degree to which Arroyo is seeking to agglomerate power in the House and extending her tentacles through her allies into government itself may well set up a monumental power struggle with Noynoy Aquino, if he wins. She has made last-minute appointments of her allies to the Supreme Court and the military in seeming contravention of the law, which prohibits midnight selections and extensions, in an attempt to have a government more loyal to her than to the president.

Aquino has been estranged from the president since at least the 2004 election, when he called for her to step down in the face of considerable evidence of massive vote-buying in Mindanao that preserved her presidency. When the former President and hugely popular Corazon Aquino died last August, Noynoy and the family refused an offer from Arroyo for a state funeral in Malacañang Palace and sought to block the president from attending the funeral in Manila's main Catholic cathedral.

Although Noynoy Aquino was a lackluster politician in the Philippines Senate who was regarded as running on the names of his assassinated father, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino and his mother Cory, he has mounted an aggressive campaign, demanding an end to the endemic corruption that has plagued the country for generations.

In addition to tying Villar to Arroyo, Aquino has accused Villar, perhaps the Philippines' richest businessman, of using his position as a politician to benefit his extensive real estate interests. In particular, Villar was accused of swinging a national highway to run close to one of his major developments south of Manila. Aquino and others have also said Villar has exaggerated his youthful poverty in an attempt to connect with the Filipino poor. Villar has denied that, as has his mother.

Philippine elections are notoriously open to corruption and violence. According to a nationwide poll announced April 16, an astonishing 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 to take place. Despite that, however, Comelec, the national election commission, expects 80 percent of voters to turn out in this year's general elections. Normal voter turnout is usually within the 75-percent mark, Comelec said.

The big concern is whether the election can be conducted in an orderly manner. Besides the endemic violence that inevitably accompanies elections, the Philippines is experimenting with an entirely new electronic voting system, with 86,000 voting machines distributed across the country's 7,000 islands. As has been pointed out by Peter Wallace, an independent investment analyst in Manila, no electronic system ever installed in the Philippines has ever worked right the first time after installation. Most observers expect chaos.