Philippines: Noynoy Pulls Away…

With less than a month to go before the Philippine national election on May 10, the polls are starting to confound the experts. Benigno"Noynoy" Aquino III, presumed to have been outspent, outsmarted and outgunned by his principal rival, Manuel"Manny" Villar, has picked up increasing steam along with 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.

Philippines elections, notoriously open to vote-buying, violence, intimidation, fraud and the paid blandishments of celebrities, are difficult to predict, and the situation could change again in the next round of polls, due in late April. Nonetheless, in the latest Pulse Asia poll, according to an April 6 press release, Aquino now has 37 percent of the vote, with Villar dropping to 25 percent despite spending vast amounts of money, and Estrada at 18 percent. The Business World-Social Weather Stations Poll, which is a bit older, has Erap at 19 percent, Villar at 28 percent. Aquino has 37 percent in the SWS poll as well.

Estrada in particular has been picking up support in Cebu, election watchers in Manila told Asia Sentinel. However, he also retains a certain amount of residual strength in Manila among the poor as well as other parts of the country. Both Estrada and Villar are stressing their humble beginnings in an attempt to gather votes.

Source: Pulse Asia

Villar apparently owes his ill fortune to widespread and growing suspicion that he has made a secret pact with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to share power if, as expected, she is elected to the House of Representatives and makes a smooth transition to the house speakership. Despite Villar's denunciation of the rumors, they continue. There may be more than just suspicion. Philippine newspapers reported speculation Monday that as many as 30 members of Arroyo's Lakas-Kampi-CMD coalition, including Prospero Nograles, the Speaker of the House, are about to defect to Villar's campaign despite Lakas's official endorsement of Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro. Along with Nograles, the skittish lawmakers are said to be primarily loyal to Miguel"Mike" Arroyo, the president's husband.

The rumors of the pact with Arroyo started with earlier defections of key Lakas leaders party to Villar's camp. They included Luis"Chavit" Singson, the former Ilocos Sur governor who sank his onetime ally, Erap Estrada, by alleging in October of 2000 that he had given the former president P400 million (US$8.59 million at current exchange rates) as a payoff from the illegal jueteng numbers racket. The assertion was a key in driving Erap from power and clearing the way for Arroyo to become president. The suspicion of a deal has earned conjoined the president and Villar into a new single,"Villaroyo."

Villar's attempt – if it exists – to make common cause with Arroyo could be a strategic error despite Arroyo's proven ability to fix elections, as she did in 2004. It is a symptom of the distrust of her that rumors of her connection to Villar caused his voter appeal to plummet from what had been a statistical dead heat. In another recent poll by Pulse Asia of the 15 most beloved national figures of all time in the Philippines, she received just 2 percent of the vote. Erap, whom she helped to drive from power and who was convicted of massive corruption, remains steady at 13 percent in the hearts of the electorate, not far from his current campaign figure. Her approval rating as president has continued to plummet, with only 16 percent of the electorate satisfied with her performance.

Beyond that, it is problematical whether it is possible to call the Philippines a democracy in the conventional sense. For one thing, it is getting to appear that the 2010 national election could be the most violent on record, with 90 people already dead – 57 in a single incident in Maguindanao Province on Mindanao in November which shook the entire country.

“During the campaign period, parties and candidates use various modes of campaigning that fall within, as well as outside, the bounds of the Election Code, according to a paper by Patrick Patino and Djorina for the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung political foundation:"The common forms of electoral violence are: threats or attacks on candidates or supporters; attacks on rallies, headquarters or homes of candidates; clashes between supporters; kidnapping; tearing or seizure of posters; unauthorized carrying of firearms, etc."

The paper describes the ora de peligro (literally,"hour of danger"), the most intense and anxiety-filled period that begins two days before the actual election day, in which parties and candidates both defend their voting bases while trying to break the voter base and machinery of their opponents.

“Voters may be threatened to vote for a candidate or not to vote at all. Bailiwicks are assaulted or homes of ward leaders strafed or burned, and candidates or their campaign managers may be ambushed while doing the last rounds of negotiations. Drinking and gambling are banned, along with guns. But election day itself, the two wrote,"is also characterized by a high incidence of death and violence, usually triggered by real or suspected fraud.

At least 117 private armies have been formed by local politicians in just a month, according to Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, a local NGO, up from 68 when the government formed a commission to disband them following the Maguindanao massacre, perpetrated by the clan of a local warlord named Andal Ampatuan. A devastating report by the International Crisis Group released in December said that "Political patronage by successive governments in Manila, most notably by the Arroyo administration, allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked power, including the possession of a private arsenal with mortars, rocket launchers and state-of-the-art assault rifles. They controlled the police, the judiciary, and the local election commission." That is true across much of the Philippines, where local warlords have a stranglehold on the electoral process.

That isn't the only concern about the election. As many as 8 to 12 million potential voters live overseas although in some places they are restricted by the fact that they must vote in person at consulates or embassies. Most overseas workers, often supported by activist organizations, are far more politically aware than their counterparts at home, and some candidates would just as soon have them forget about suffrage In Saudi Arabia, for instance, there are just two places to vote – Riyadh and Jedda, meaning some workers would have to travel hundreds of kilometers to vote.

Nonetheless, on Saturday, they began to cast their ballots in the first test of new state-of-the-art electronic voting machines built for the Netherlands-based Smartmatic-TIM Corp. Some 82,000 of the machines have been delivered across the country's 7,000-odd islands. There are grave concerns that problems with the machines will bring the election to a halt despite assurances by officials that all will go smoothly.

One of the big problems, according to sources such as the Manila-bases Pacific Strategies and Assessments, that the country's rapidly deteriorating power supply will render the voting machines useless, since they are powered by electricity. Comelec, the country's election commission, says backup batteries will keep them going in case of brownouts, which in some parts of the country are now lasting eight to 10 hours. On top of that, however, as critics have pointed out, there has never been a newly-installed major IT project in the Philippines that has worked right on the first go. And this will be the first time the voting machines have ever been tried on such a massive scale. Watch this space.