Sic Transit Gloria

Hopefuls are beginning to line up for next year's presidential election in the Philippines. Some of them look to be positioning themselves for influence rather than being likely candidates, but given the fluid nature of politics and the weak party allegiances predictions are difficult.

The electoral system itself is built for surprises, allowing multiple candidates and with a non run-off second ballot. It can deliver the presidency to candidate with little more than 20 percent of the vote – in 1992 "Steady Eddie" Fidel Ramos won with 23 percent, only just ahead of motor-mouth Miriam Defensor Santiago.

Perhaps the most interesting candidates are those who do not come from the traditional backgrounds, the sons and daughters of past presidents and senators and scions of families long accustomed to ruling their provincial bailiwicks.

The top of that list must be current vice-president Noli de Castro, who regularly leads in the popularity polls. This former television presenter is a well-known and handsome face, which counts for much in the personal politics of the Philippines where visibility is paramount. He should also have the support of incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the two parties, Lakas and Kampi, which support her government and are supposedly uniting to fight the next election.

However, de Castro himself has not declared himself a candidate. Is this a tactical decision? Or does he have real misgivings about his desire and ability and be President? His accomplishments as vice-president and previously senator are viewed as modest in the extreme. An endorsement by Arroyo could be more liability than asset, given her prolonged unpopularity. And he may lack support from business and other Manila power centers who doubt his competence and fear he could turn into a mild version of ousted former president Estrada.

They may not like Arroyo but do acknowledge that she is a hard worker with a grasp of economic issues and is no more or less corrupt than the system as a whole. Arroyo herself is more concerned with keeping lines open to most potential successors to ward off threats of legal action against her once she has left office.

Next of the outsiders is Manuel Villar. A senator who was previously speaker of the House of Representatives and later majority leader in the Senate, Villar has a good grasp of how to make a cumbersome two chamber legislative system work for a president. His main claim to the top job however is that he is an independently wealthy self-made man who made his way out of the slums of Tondo via business school and accountancy to create a large property and construction group. He has not only declared himself a candidate but made much of his ability to finance his campaign without having to do deals with benefactors seeking returns on their investment in the next president.

Not everyone is impressed with Villar's business acumen, notably those who lost out when his part of his property empire defaulted from over-exposure at the time of the Asian crisis. Not a glamorous figure or as yet very widely known his personal achievements command respect, some believe he could make the system work without being over-run by it.

Religious figures as ever play some role in Philippines politics, though it is mostly a marginal rather than decisive factor. Populist preachers have long been a feature and major candidates at least to seek their endorsement. Possibly they will stand themselves. In 2004 Eduardo "Bro Eddie" Villanueva, broadcaster and head of a Pentecostal group gathered 6 percent of the presidential vote, has been a vigorous critic of Arroyo and may stand again. A rival preacher, Mike Velarde of the Charismatic catholic group El Shaddai is probably content to be sought for his endorsement.

Newer on the religious-political scene with more nationwide potential is Father Eddie Panlilio, a mainstream Catholic currently suspended from priestly duties as he practices politics, to the discomfort of his superiors. He came onto the scene in Pampanga in 2007 when he challenged and defeated the traditional provincial power holders to become governor, in particular attacking illegal gambling and other mainstays of local political corruption.

In office Panlilo has proved effective at reducing graft and making better use of available resources. Paraguay recently elected just such a figure as president to clean up the system. Just possibly revolt against the corruption of traditional politics might take hold. But without money and party machinery many doubt that a provincial success story can be projected onto the national stage.

So much for the newer names and faces. Even if one of the above gets elected, he will still have to cope with a senate and house in which familiar families and long established names dominate. But the old elites also have their own candidate names in the wings. Most promising of these could be Manuel Roxas II, grandson of Manuel Roxas, who was president for two years before dying suddenly in 1948.

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Roxas has other credentials too – a Wharton degree, experience as an investment banker in New York prior to his return to the Philippines after the fall of Marcos, a cabinet member under both Estrada and Arroyo administrations and top scorer in the 2004 senate elections. He is known for fairly liberal views and a glamorous TV journalist as a fiancé. But Liberal Party membership may be a drawback.

In particular the richest would-be king-maker of them all, San Miguel boss Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco has several horses in his stable who could run. There is his nephew and former Tarlac congressman 45-year-old Gilberto Teodoro, currently Minister of Defense. By some accounts he could be favored by Arroyo over de Castro, if only to keep Danding from troubling her after she steps down.

Teodoro's father was once head of the Social Security System, the public savings cookie-jar so eagerly courted by businessmen with political clout. Teodoro has all the right connections, plus law degrees from the University of the Philippines and Harvard to embellish his resume. But whether he is saleable to the electorate at large is another matter.

A more likely winner, despite or because of his youth, could be Francis "Chiz" Escudero who has glamour plus connections. He turns 40, the minimum age for the presidency, only this year but with his boyish good looks to add to his elite credentials – UP Law School and an MA in International relations from Georgetown – he is dubbed by some as the "Philippine Obama".

Escudero was second top scorer in the 2007 senate election and has been prominent in efforts to impeach Arroyo. He is also prominent in Danding's National Peoples Coalition, now in the alliance known as the Genuine Opposition. A young face, he comes from an old political family from Sorsogon. His father was Agriculture Secretary under Marcos.

From the same party and top in the 2007 Senate election is yet another Danding-linked potential candidate, Loren Lagarda, another TV anchor who was vice-presidential candidate in 2004 but lost to de Castro. She may be viewed as too lightweight to attract big money support, but her poll achievements cannot be ignored, particularly if de Castro does not run. More likely however is that she would team up with Escudero and bid again for the vice-presidency.

In addition to the above there are a number of other actual or potential candidates who are well known figures but unlikely to win a national election. They include:

Jejomar Binay, three-time mayor of Makati who has been constantly at loggerheads with Arroyo and was a driving force in forming the Genuine Opposition group. Though very popular locally, and a veteran of People Power actions, he probably lacks national exposure. So too does Bayani Fernando, an Arroyo backer who heads the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. He has already declared his candidacy but is not taken very seriously.

Richard Gordon made a name for his effective development of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, adjacent to his family's Olongapo bailiwick, after the US bases were kicked out in 1991. Now a senator, he was a successful Tourism Secretary. But his resources and national appeal are limited.

Last and for many hopefully least is former national police chief Senator Panfilo Lacson. Although he does well in senate elections thanks to name recognition, his reputation among those concerned with human rights and anti-corruption issues is appalling. But he has a core support which could just be enough if there are many of the above list stay in the race.

As for ousted former president Joseph "Erap" Estrada, he has been making noises suggesting that he could run again on the basis that he has not completed a term. But any such attempt seems likely to be ruled out by the Supreme Court, newly packed with Arroyo appointees.

As for the Supreme Court itself, there are those who would wish that Chief Justice Reynato Puno would run for the presidency on a clean government ticket. He has a reputation as judicial activist and human rights advocate with national recognition. But for now at least it is wishful thinking by those looking outside the political elite for well-known figures. He is due to retire in May 2010 but would have to do so earlier to run for election.