Q&A: What to watch for in Philippines elections

Campaigning for the Philippines elections kicked off this week in familiar style, with famous names dominating the ballots and already 60 people killed in political violence. Here’s what to look for ahead of the May polls.

By , Correspondent

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    Philippine presidential candidate Gilberto Teodoro speaks during a campaign rally at Ynares center in Antipolo City, east of Manila on Tuesday.
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    Philippine presidential candidate Senator Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino III, the son of late former President Corazon Aquino, addresses his supporters during a kickoff campaign rally in Concepcion town in Pampanga province, north of Manila on Tuesday.
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Philippine presidential hopefuls began campaigning this week in a race to succeed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who steps down in June after nine years in office marred by partisan battles over corruption, stalled political reforms, and vote-rigging in 2004 elections.

The May 10 poll will be the first counted by a new automated ballot-counting system designed to reduce fraud. More than 50 million Filipinos are eligible to elect a president, vice-president, hundreds of lawmakers in both houses of Congress, and thousands of local officials and lawmakers.

As political parties are weak in the Philippines, wealthy political dynasties dominate ballots, particularly in local races. Celebrities also feature prominently: Champion boxer Manny Pacquiao is standing for Congress, and former president Joseph Estrada, a movie star, is running again for the top job.

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Ms. Arroyo, a former economist, claims credit for several years of steady economic growth and only a mild dip in 2009. But her ratings have remained stubbornly low and are seen as a drag on candidates from her administration. In a surprise move, Arroyo is running for Congress in her home district, potentially putting her in a powerful position if a long-mooted switch to a parliamentary system of government is adopted.

Who are the frontrunners to win the presidency?

Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, son of former president Corazon Aquino, is the man to beat. He declared his candidacy last September, one month after the death of his mother, whose emotional funeral became a rallying cry for disgruntled Filipinos. Early opinion polls gave him a commanding lead over Senator Manuel “Manny” Villar, a billionaire businessman who is also considered a strong candidate.

But the latest independent poll taken in January put the two candidates virtually even. The Pulse Asia polling firm said Mr. Aquino led with 37 percent, with Mr. Villar at 35 percent. One reason is a blitz of TV advertising by Villar, who is financing his own campaign in the run-up to Tuesday, when $11 million per candidate spending limits kicked in.

Lagging behind in the poll were Mr. Estrada, who was ousted in 2001 by protests over corruption, and Gilberto Teodoro, former defense minister under Arroyo. Other hopefuls include an evangelical priest, a senator who runs the Philippines Red Cross, and a prominent environmentalist. The field is likely to narrow by April to two or three candidates.

What are the main issues in the race?

Philippine elections rarely turn on policy platforms, though candidates will try to tap into popular frustration over poverty, corruption, and inflation. Presidential hopefuls have so far steered clear of specific policies. Aquino pledged Monday at a public forum not to raise taxes. More generally, he has staked his candidacy on his family’s record for honesty and probity and a willingness to tackle graft.

One issue that may generate some heat, at least in the capital, Manila, is constitutional change. Arroyo toyed with the idea of converting an often-gridlocked presidential system of government into a British-style parliament. Villar has said charter change would not be a priority under his presidency.

Candidates will probably score points by deriding Arroyo’s record and seek to weaken Mr. Teodoro, who is seen as Arroyo’s preferred candidate. Analysts say Arroyo may quietly throw her support and the powerful state apparatus behind another candidate if Teodoro fails to make headway in the polls.

What are the implications for the peace process in Mindanao?

Arroyo restarted peace talks last year with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest insurgent group in Mindanao. Most candidates appear to support these talks, though none have gone into specifics about how far they are prepared to grant autonomy to MILF-dominated areas, a key demand.

The clearest stance put forward is that of Estrada, says Amina Rasul, director of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy in Manila. But his solution is “a return to all-out war in Mindanao,” she says. Other candidates are less bellicose but haven’t staked out strong positions.

What is the chance of a smooth campaign and voting?

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 Arroyo. On Monday, a candidate for a city council in Mindanao who was gunned down near his home.

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. “I don’t think the Philippines can pull off an automated election,” says Scott Harrison, executive director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Manila.

In the event of a disputed vote count, the Supreme Court would be expected to make a ruling. Chief Justice Reynato Puno is due to retire on May 17. But opponents have said Arroyo’s proposal to name a successor violates a constitutional ban on presidential appointments during their last 60 days in office.

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