The silly season has begun. Or rather it is election time in the Philippines.
A confusing mayhem of personalities, many bereft of shame, are courting voters for the May 11 vote. Eighty-one candidates hope to succeed President Fidel Ramos, who is forbidden by law to run for a second six-year term. Another 200,000 candidates are vying for 117,000 elective positions in this scattered Southeast Asian archipelago that prides itself as the most open democratic society in the region.
Asia's economic crisis has left thousands of people jobless in the Philippines, yet the quality of candidates able to save the country has commentators weeping.
"Never has there been an election so bankrupt of political ideas and so dominated by personalism, causing concerns about the stability of Philippine democracy," lamented Amanda Doronila, a widely read commentator.
Most presidential hopefuls have no party machinery and know they cannot win. Their candidacies are statements of egos or lost causes.
Imelda Marcos, the former first lady largely disgraced by her late husband's 14-year dictatorship, walked on her knees in a church on the first day of her campaign. The country's Supreme Court recently upheld her criminal conviction for graft.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago (who narrowly lost to Mr. Ramos in the presidential race in 1992) uses the "Star Wars" logo as her symbol. The movie's theme plays, smoke rises, and strobe lights flash as the Philippines' Princess Leia speaks at rallies. She calls for a political rival to be taken off the ballot because she has the same surname.
Irene Santiago, the candidate concerned, countered: "I had heard that [the senator] was paranoid but this takes the cake. I did not know she had a franchise on this family name."
Manoling Morato, the national lottery chief, makes no bones that he's meant to be a spoiler. While he contends Miriam Santiago is an unguided missile, it is the popular Vice President Joseph Estrada he is most afraid of, calling him "an alcoholic, a womanizer, and an inveterate gambler, apart from being incompetent." Mr. Morato gleefully sent photos to newspapers purporting to show Mr. Estrada gambling in the company of a suspected drug runner.
But the prize for self-promotion goes to the administration candidate for senator, Loren Legarda, who used to read the nightly news on the country's leading television network. Her press releases bestow her as "Princess Diana Incarnate."
HOOPLA aside, the real fight is between Estrada, a self-confessed philanderer, and Jose de Venecia, who has a long track record as a wheeler-dealer in politics and business. Despite the economic crisis, no candidate has offered an agenda on how to create jobs.
Sociologist Randolph David said Philippines elections tend to be wacky and wild "because Filipinos cannot imagine it to be any other way.... The mass media feed the population with superstition and pulp. Why do you expect voters to be intelligent at election time?"
Filipinos do take the campaigning in stride. A popular joke in Manila goes like this: When a ship carrying all the presidential candidates goes out to sea and sinks in a big wave, who will be the survivor? Answer: the Philippines.