Philippines National Election Monday

With Philippine national elections due Monday, it appears increasingly likely that Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino will win going away -- if the election comes off at all. Some 17,999 offices are up for grabs from municipal counselor to the presidency on new computerized vote-counting machinery that has never been used before.

Noynoy's onetime main challenger, Manuel "Manny" Villar, has slipped badly, falling behind even Joseph "Erap" Estrada, the disgraced former president who was driven from office by scandal in 2001 and was later pardoned by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Erap has 20 percent of the vote against Villar's 19 percent. Aquino, who had been expected to be buried in a flood of Villar's money, has increased his share of the vote to 42 percent according to the latest Social Weather Stations poll.

That should make for a tamper-proof lead, although anything can happen in a Filipino election. According to a nationwide poll announced April 16 by the Social Weather Stations, 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. Nonetheless, in a true triumph of hope over reality, according to the national election commission, 80 percent of voters are expected to turn out in this year's general elections. Normal voter turnout is usually within the 75-percent mark, Comelec says.

It is one of the only countries in the world in which the International Committee of the Red Cross identifies hot spots where electoral violence is feared, and stockpiles blood supplies there. The United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada have issued travel warnings to their citizens to avoid large rallies and to take precautions on election day.

The questions over whether the election will come off are real, and could pose a major national embarrassment for a country that is hard to embarrass. This week Comelec, the Philippines election commission, reported that six days before the election it was forced to replace 76,300 defective compact flash cards in the electronic voting machines provided by the Netherlands-based Smartmatic-TIM Corp. across the country's 7,000-odd islands. With an el Nino-instigated drought delivering brownouts lasting as long as 8-10 hours across much of the country, there are deep concerns whether there will be power for the voting machines. And, as critics have pointed out, there has yet to be an instance where a major IT project has ever been initiated in the Philippines that worked right the first time.

Nonetheless, Comelec says there will be an election. Aquino has demanded publicly that it go ahead although it is highly likely that the results will be delayed. Comelec has already acknowledged that it is probably not going to be able to canvass the results and release them with the 36 hour timeframe earlier announced

Given Noynoy's widening lead, it appears that the Aquino name really does represent hope for a better country. With Noynoy's father assassinated trying to put an end to the Marcos dictatorship, and given his mother Cory's image as a saint of sorts, their image is one of national heroism, the closest thing the Philippines has had in selflessness in public office. Never mind that Noynoy's father Benigno Aquino II was an aristocrat who came out of the ruling classes, and that his mother's record as president was mixed.

"I find it kind of touching, if naive and destined to disappointment, to see that Filipinos are again turning to an Aquino for hope," said a seasoned observer who has known the family for a quarter century.

Naiveté and disappointment may well be in store. Arroyo seems thoroughly determined to keep running the government after she leaves office on July 1 from the House of Representatives. Long-time observers of Filipino politics point out that power evaporates very quickly after a president leaves office, and they are betting that Arroyo's will as well once the power to distribute pork disappears. But the diminutive president has taken some dramatic steps to attempt to preserve her hegemony that have the potential to create a stalemate with whoever is elected, and Noynoy's record as a lawmaker is hardly one that would inspires confidence that he would be able to put her in her place.

Barring being struck by lightning, she is all but certain to be elected to the House of Representatives from her native Pampanga province and has made clear her intention to become house speaker as soon as a vote can be taken. She has packed the electoral rolls with her supporters and her Lakas-Kampi-CMD coalition appears likely to have a clear majority of the votes when the house sits for the first time.

As president, Arroyo has been maneuvering for months to install as many loyalists as she can to continuing top positions in the government. She sought – and gained – the authority to appoint the chief justice of the Supreme Court when the current chief justice's tenure ends on June 15 despite a law that forbids midnight appointments. Her pick for the position is likely to be Renato Corona, whom she named to the court after a stint as her former chief of staff and spokesman.

She has also taken steps to preserve the military's loyalty to her. She has appointed members of the Philippine Military Academy class of 1978 who have been close to her to key military positions that give her partial or total control of the Joint Security Control Centers which secure candidates and polling centers. On March 8, she named a loyalist, Lieutenant-General Delfin Bangit, as armed forces chief of staff. Aquino, by contrast, mostly has only the loyalty and endorsement of older and retired generals who were close to his mother.

Thus, if as seems likely Noynoy Aquino wins the presidency, he will have to prove himself a tough and adroit chief executive if he is to take back the government from Arroyo, who will have the loyalty of the House of Representatives, significant forces in the administration, the judiciary and the military if not the national police. That will be a big job.