Arroyo's shadow over Philippines election

Voting began Monday for the Philippines election. Though President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is not seeking reelection, her legacy has figured prominently in the campaign.

By , / Correspondent

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    Philippines election: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's finger was stained with indelible ink after she cast her vote inside a polling precinct in Lubao, Pampanga Province, north of Manila, Monday.
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After a mudslinging presidential campaign, some 50 million Filipinos are heading to the polls Monday to choose from a field dominated by the son of a beloved former president and a wealthy real estate developer.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took office in 2001, isn’t eligible to run. But her legacy and her influence have loomed over the contest. While her own party’s candidate has kept his distance from her, the front-runners have accused one another of being in her pocket, a slur that is considered a major turnoff for voters, such is the president’s unpopularity.

“The main issue in this campaign is not corruption. It’s not poverty. It’s Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo,” says Ramon Casiple, who runs the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila.

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Lame-duck presidents are often a liability, as during the 2008 US presidential campaign in which John McCain steered clear of outgoing President Bush. But Arroyo’s negative drag is amplified by deep suspicion of her political ambitions after she steps down as president in June.

In an unusual move, Arroyo is running for Congress in her home district in central Luzon. She seems determined to stay on the political stage. Should it win enough seats, her party says it would propose Arroyo as House speaker, setting up a potential rivalry with the next president.

Avoiding the incumbent

Leading the pack is Sen. Benigno Aquino, son of former President Corazon Aquino. Since February, he has pulled ahead of second-placed opponent Sen. Manuel Villar, a real estate tycoon. Mr. Villar has been dogged by speculation that Arroyo is secretly backing him and not her party’s struggling candidate, Gilberto Teodoro. Commentators call the alleged joint candidacy "Villaroyo," combining the two surnames.

Villar has denied any dealings with Arroyo. His side has shot back with a similar allegation against Mr. Aquino, using the coinage "Gloriaquino," and identifying several members of Aquino’s family who serve in Arroyo’s administration. Villar has argued that he doesn’t need help from Arroyo as he has plenty of his own money for campaigning.

But analysts say the "Villaroyo" tag has stuck, in part because pro-Aquino media has pushed it hard. There has also been a stampede of ruling-party defections to Villar, as well as reports that the party isn’t investing heavily on its presidential hopeful, suggesting that resources and orders are going elsewhere.

Alberto Lim, executive director of the Makati Business Club, a lobby group that favors Aquino, says the outgoing president isn’t leaving anything to chance. “[Arroyo] has several irons in the fire. She’s not just betting on one house. That’s why Villaroyo is not so far-fetched,” he says.

Arroyo's plans

By running for Congress and allegedly making deals with presidential front-runners, Arroyo may simply be trying to stay in the political game. Some opponents have warned that she is angling to become a future prime minister under a long-mooted and still inchoate plan of constitutional reform.

But a more likely explanation is legal and political protection after she loses her presidential immunity, says Prospero De Vera, an expert on elections at the University of the Philippines. Civil rights groups are planning to sue Arroyo over human rights abuses, including the disappearance or murder of hundreds of activists, mostly from leftist groups that are targeted by security forces in anticommunist campaigns. Her administration has also been dogged by several corruption scandals.

“A lot of civil society groups are waiting to bring cases against her locally and internationally,” says Mr. De Vera, who is an unpaid adviser to Villar.

Much of the campaign has turned on personality attacks, with Villar’s rags-to-riches narrative being picked apart by Aquino’s camp and retaliatory attempts to frame Aquino as an idle aristocrat. Most candidates have sought to win over voters by promising to tackle poverty and revive the economy, but have offered few specifics on how to plug the budget deficit or advance the peace process in troubled Mindanao.

Fears of violence

The election process remains a big concern. Widespread vote-rigging in 2004, allegedly at Arroyo’s behest, cast a shadow over the poll results. Some of the most egregious cheating was in Maguindanao Province, where 57 people were massacred last November in a political dispute. On April 17, the government dropped murder charges against two members of the Ampatuan family blamed for the massacre, a move that sparked protest from relatives of the dead, then reapplied them. The Ampatuans are longtime allies of Arroyo.

This time the national ballot count will be fully automated, in what critics say is a risky bet on the efficiency of counting machines that have had a mixed run in other countries. Election monitors have warned that power cuts may disrupt the count and that voters haven’t been taught properly how to fill out the new type of ballot.

In a close race, any breakdown in the counting system might spark unrest, warns Mr. Lim. Already, dozens were killed during the campaign season, and four more were shot dead on Monday. “If people don’t believe in the process, there could be blood on the streets,” he says.

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