Two months before the run-up to the May 10 polls, Philippine presidential elections started shaping up as a two-man race. Thanks to lavish campaign spending, the country’s wealthiest politician closed in on the son of democracy icon Corazon Aquino. Opinion polls conducted in January showed Senator Manual “Manny” Villar Jr. made an eight-point gain from December to January in one poll, leaving him only seven points behind frontrunner Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III.
The survey saw Aquino as the top choice of 42 percent of respondents, down from 46 percent in early December. Villar, who made his fortune in real estate, was up to 35 percent from 27 percent.
Aquino and Villar, both senators from sharply different backgrounds but with a similar message - uplifting the lives of a third of the population who live in abject poverty and cracking down on widespread corruption and political violence.
Aquino, 50, has anchored his campaign on running a clean government and restoring the credibility of the judiciary and Congress, which he says has been seriously eroded during President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s nine years of tumultuous rule.
He said he took the cue from his mother, who fought dictator Ferdinand Marcos and was swept to power in the 1986 “people power” revolt. Corazon Aquino’s death from cancer in August 2009 led to a massive outpouring of grief, which analysts credit for her son’s popularity. Villar, 60, who portrays his rags-to-riches life in his colourful political advertisements, is promising to end poverty in the country. Appealing to mostly poor voters, from whose ranks he once rose, Villar vows to create jobs and provide housing - his main source of income as a leading property developer.
But Villar is also facing censure by his colleagues in the Senate for his alleged role in the rerouting of a highway so that it passes close to his real estate developments. He said the charges are trumped up. Aquino on the other hand is being criticised by his rivals as an underachieving legislator with no track record who is riding on his mother’s reputation. He needs to step out from the shadow of his family’s name and connect with voters, letting them know who he is as a person, said observers.
Some believe Aquino’s popularity might be borne by media hype following the outpouring of public emotion when his mother died last year and the people’s respect
While the hundreds of thousands of people who came out for the funeral of Aquino’s mother, former President Cory Aquino, may represent a huge vote bank, his lack of executive experience and relatively weak funding are seen as major drawbacks. Besides, Aquino’s Liberal Party is a small organisation, and counts mostly on volunteers and donations from civil society groups. No wonder Aquino lags far behind Manny’s campaign spending.
Philippine elections often turn violent. In 2004, the official toll of election-related killings was 148. More than 60 have died in the current campaign. That figure includes 57 killed in a single incident, a massacre carried out last November against a political family in Mindanao, allegedly by a rival clan with close ties to President Arroyo.
Election officials have imposed a strict ban on carrying firearms and set up checkpoints manned by police officers. Similar bans were flouted in past campaigns, but the latest scheme appears to be stricter.
A bigger concern is the vote count. Election officials have contracted a private company to install an automated counting system that critics say is behind schedule and riddled with errors.
Business leaders in Manila have warned that a system failure could throw the election into chaos. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) are worried that delays in preparations could put the country’s first automated national elections in jeopardy.
While there is no dispute that the automated elections will expedite the counting of votes, there is also a danger that if it is not properly handled, it could lead to massive fraud unparalleled in Philippine history.
The two groups said they were concerned over post-mock election reports that the voting could take as much as 22 hours for a precinct with 1,000 registered voters.
Since the precincts will only be open for 11 hours, there would be disenfranchisement of about 50 percent, if they use the results of the mock polls and therefore there is a need to adopt a contingency plan to prevent the massive disenfranchisement of voters, including a failure of elections. The Comelec has yet to release the contingency plans for election failures and the processes for electoral complaints before a proclamation, worrying the lawyers.