Philippine vote tilts to US ally

Hopes rise for peace talks following the apparent victory of President Gloria Arroyo in Monday's election.

The Philippines' President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is looking ahead to a full six-year term on the basis of Monday's presidential election. Aides say the vote gives her a clear mandate to follow a fight-talk strategy against insurgent groups that have festered particularly in the nation's Muslim far south.

The official results of the election won't be known for weeks, but exit polls point to a comfortable victory for Ms. Arroyo. She received clear support from the large southern island of Mindanao among Christians as well as in Mindanao's southernmost Muslim provinces, the small island of Basilan, and the Sulu Island chain.

While the economy remains the top domestic issue here, international attention and US support has focused on the government's security efforts. Arroyo has moved to crush the die-hard remnants of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf while pursuing peace talks with the biggest, most influential Muslim grouping, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to bring its fighters into the mainstream. Her strong showing in the south has raised hopes that the strategy will succeed in reducing tension in a region roiled by Islamic revolt.

"With a six-year term, our negotiators are now very confident they could reach a peace settlement" with the MILF, says Rigoberto Tiglao, the president's chief of staff.

Analysts say that Arroyo should have enough time on her side to be able to display patience in both diplomacy and war. José Concepcion, chairman of NAMFREL, the widely used acronym for the watchdog National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections, predicts intensified efforts at reconciliation.

"The military has learned a lesson," says Concepcion. "We cannot be like Sharon" - a reference to the hard-line tactics of the Israeli leader in dealing with Palestinian uprisings. "You have to reach out. We have seen these people abandon their guns."

While the government has taken a softer approach with the MILF, Manila enlisted Washington's support to crush the Abu Sayyaf group, alleged to have ties with Al Qaeda. Leftist groups have protested the presence of 100 US military advisers in the country.

US military units fly in for annual joint exercises with Philippine forces, but Arroyo is not likely to want to see the number of US advisers increase significantly in the near future. "The nature of our military activities is based on cycles and phases," says Capt. Dennis Williams, a US military spokesman .

Unlike in Spain's recent elections, the president's close ties to the Bush administration were not a dominant election issue here. But the presence of 4,000 Filipino workers as well as a small Philippine force in Iraq could become an emotional issue, particularly among Philippine Muslims, after the killing of a Filipino civilian in a mortar attack on a US base in Iraq.

Sensitive to the danger of exploitation of the Philippine role in Iraq by Islamic extremists, Arroyo was quick to say she did not want Filipinos to stay there "if the life of a single Filipino is at risk."

The economy, however, is sure to remain a major challenge - even if she and other candidates glossed over the problem during the campaign by issuing vague promises to relieve the suffering of the nation's impoverished majority.

"Definitely her main priority is the economy," says Mr. Tiglao. "She wants to get on with her reform program beginning with revenue generation. The program now will go full blast."

Arroyo is hoping that impressive gains in the Senate will help. In the race for 12 of the 24 Senate seats at stake in the election, eight of her allies are running ahead. "We have pending bills that we need to get passed," says Mr. Tiglao.

At the same time, the government may have to cope with bitter dissent, including threats of a coup, from an assortment of political figures identified with her leading opponent, film star Fernando Poe Jr. He has discounted the significance of exit polls showing her as the victor while charging fraud and election violence by government forces.

While the US-educated Arroyo clearly has the confidence of the business community, many observers remain skeptical about chances for relief from the problems of poverty and overwhelming class distinctions that appear to have worsened in recent years.

"If Gloria wins another six years, that's unbearable," says Francisco Sionil Jose, author of numerous novels depicting some of the ironies, and suffering, of life in the Philippines. "She spent a lot of money for this campaign. She should stop borrowing from public funds. All of our oligarchs are sending their money out of the country, but some of the worst slums of Asia are here now."

Ask Mr. Jose whether Poe would be any better, however, and he says the alternative is worse. "If he's president, he'll bring back all the Marcos cronies," he says, referring to the closest associates of the late Ferdinand Marcos, overthrown in 1986. "He will pardon [former president Joseph] Estrada. He's surrounded by crooks."

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