On an overcast Sunday in Hong Kong's bustling downtown, Julie Basitan sits on a ledge and leafs through a Philippine newspaper. Like many other expatriates taking their customary Sunday break here, Ms. Basitan likes to keep up with what's happening back home.
But this year there's another reason to take note. For the first time, overseas Philippine workers, whose remittances make up to 10 percent of the Philippine economic output, are eligible to vote. Basitan, a domestic maid, is among 90,233 Filipino workers in Hong Kong who registered during a sign-up last year.
The new voters could change the dynamics of Philippine elections, including the May 10 presidential elections. Activists say overseas voters tend to be better educated and more politically aware than their relatives back home. In some cases, they may hold sway over family members who depend on their remittances. Last year, Filipinos sent home $7.6 billion, up 6.3 percent from the previous year.
Perhaps more important, expatriates should be immune from the rampant vote-buying and intimidation that mar Philippine elections, say activists.
"Will it make a difference? Maybe not in terms of numbers. But what is interesting is that overseas workers can influence their families at home to become more interested in politics and what's happening in the country," says Ellene Sana, who runs the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila.
Hong Kong is the biggest single cache of overseas votes in Philippine elections. A total of 364,187 overseas voters are eligible to vote this year, out of 7.5 million working legally abroad. An estimated 1.7 million Filipinos also live overseas as undocumented migrants.
Under a law passed last February, overseas Filipinos can register with their local consul and vote in state and federal elections. In this year's closely watched presidential race, incumbent Gloria Arroyo, a Harvard-educated economist, is facing a stiff challenge from an untested but wildly popular movie star, Fernando Poe.
In order to give seafaring Filipinos time to vote, Philippine offices abroad opened one week ago. Land-based workers can begin voting Apr. 11.
Basitan says that unlike many Filipinos back home, she isn't persuaded by Mr. Poe's on-screen charisma. "I have a different view now. We need a strong president who won't be dictated to by his backers," she says.
Resting against a guard rail on a nearby side street, Rima Cunanan who has worked for 12 years in Hong Kong as a maid, says her vote will go to the candidate that sticks up for her rights. "It doesn't matter if he's a college graduate or not, what matters is if he is working for us migrant workers," she says.
Their ballots may not be enough to swing a national vote, given that over 37 million are eligible to participate at home, but politicians are finally paying attention to overseas voters. Presidential candidates have visited Hong Kong in recent months to appoint canvassers and get their name heard. Political parties took note of the long lines of Filipinos who turned out last year to register.
Getting the vote has been a slow struggle for expatriate Filipinos. The country's 1987 Constitution, drawn up after the fall of US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, extended voting rights to Filipinos living abroad, but lawmakers failed to pass the necessary enabling laws until last year.
While Hong Kong was fairly successful in registering voters - around 63 percent of 130,000 Filipinos working legally in the territory are on the rolls - activists say it has proven harder elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where millions more are employed, turnout was lower during the 2003 registration.
The need to register in person - and vote in person - was an obstacle to workers who live far from a Philippine consulate. Activists say personal registration and voting sits oddly with the practices of other democracies like the US that allow expatriates to vote by mail. "Personal registration is a deterrent because we don't have enough overseas missions," says Sana.
Another barrier is Philippine law that restricts the rights of Filipinos who are permanent residents in another country. Those who registered last year were allowed to vote on the condition that they return home within three years. Until recently, dual citizenship was illegal.
Daphne Ceniza-Kuok, who volunteered to help registrars in Hong Kong, says her task was made easier by the worker rights groups that flourish among overseas Filipinos. "They helped with the awareness campaign and the registration process," she says. An estimated 30 percent of Filipinos in Hong Kong are members of a union or advocacy group, usually organized along regional lines.
Ms. Ceniza-Kuok says the new law has forced politicians at home to wake up to potential new votes in Hong Kong and other Filipino communities. "If you look at the last election, 20,000 votes can make or break a senator," she says.
On the streets of downtown Hong Kong, not everyone is enthused by the upcoming ballot. Some offer only a shrug when asked if they plan to vote. Nita, a registered voter sniffed at the lineup of candidates on offer and said she was unsure if she would bother to turn out. "I think all politicians are the same. After the election, all the promises are gone," she says.