Campaigning for the Philippines presidential election on May 10 is nearing its climax in a carnival atmosphere – with more emphasis on colorful streamers and personal stories than on pressing issues such as corruption.
At rallies, a kaleidoscope of banners, streamers, and balloons, and a giveaway of T-shirts and baseball caps dazzles the eye, while a cacophony of rock music deafens the ear. Candidates pop up from behind ranks of showbiz celebrities, singers, and dancers, as crowds jostle for free food.
The main issue in these campaigns is serious: corruption. The administration of the unpopular President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who cannot run for another term, has been plagued by accusations of graft, although she denies any wrongdoing.
Each of the leading contenders in the election is striving to persuade voters that his administration would be corruption-free, but have pointed mainly to their personal history rather than policy recommendations.
Leading in the polls is Sen. Noynoy Aquino, the son of late former president Corazon Aquino, who overthrew the fabulously corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Filipinos revered “Cory” for her probity, and her son’s campaign has been an effort to cast him as a chip off the old block. His campaign slogan – “no corruption means no poverty” – resonates among Filipinos, two-fifths of whom live below the official poverty line. But Aquino has said little about how exactly he would tackle corruption or poverty.
Close behind him in the polls is Sen. Manny Villar, a wealthy property magnate who says he was born poor. Mr. Villar contrasts himself with Aquino by arguing that his humble background means that he understands the poor, and that he is already rich enough personally to rise above the temptations of corruption. But, like Aquino, he has been vague about his policies.
The leading candidates have each suggested that the other is guilty of what they consider the gravest sin: being the preferred candidate of President Arroyo, implying that he would turn a blind eye to allegations of corruption in her administration. (Arroyo says she supports her former defense secretary, Gilberto Teodoro, a distant fourth in the surveys.)
“Please skip the song-and-dance routine and stop making this election a war against the past,” is University of the Philippines political science professor Alex Magno’s appeal to the candidates. “The election is about mustering the intellectual courage to confront problems with real solutions.”
A recent editorial in the Philippine Daily Star doubts whether any new president will do much to tackle corruption and poverty.
The Star laments that a small number of families controls power and wealth in the Philippines. “Elections, despite all the campaign rhetoric about change, simply serve to validate and perpetuate that stranglehold,” it said. “In many cases, politics is the principal family business.”
Take the example of Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph Estrada. The former movie actor, elected in 1998, promised to eradicate graft in his first 100 days in office. Instead, he was himself accused of massive corruption, overthrown, and sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Estrada was subsequently pardoned – by Arroyo. He is now once again a candidate for president – and ranks third in the opinion polls.