By: Our Correspondent

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.