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Only days before the polls, Joseph Estrada's many rivals are stepping up
their efforts - legal and perhaps otherwise - to stop the frontrunner

By Sangwon Suh and Antonio Lopez / Manila
Asiaweek May 8, 1998

MUDSLINGING, CHEATING, FRAUD, VIOLENCE. The goings-on at a typical election held under strongman Ferdinand Marcos? Actually, these instances of electoral irregularities occurred a hundred years ago during the Philippines' first presidential poll. On March 22, 1897, a convention was held to pick the country's leader. The main candidates were EmilioAguinaldo and Andrés Bonifacio, both respected nationalists leading the fight against Spanish colonialism.

From the beginning, Aguinaldo held the upper hand. The assembly took place in Tejeros, just north of Manila - Aguinaldo territory. Beforehand, a white paper was circulated alleging that Bonifacio was poorly educated, did not believe in God and had embezzled funds from the Katipunan, a revolutionary group of which he was the founder. Delegates went to the convention armed. Ballots were passed around, but they had already been filled. Predictably, victory was Aguinaldo's.

Bonifacio came second but was denied the post of vice president; instead, he was made interior minister. Even so, some of Aguinaldo's supporters balked. The post, they claimed, could only be filled by a lawyer and Bonifacio had no legal
background. Angered, Bonifacio rejected the results of the election and afterwards proceeded to form his own revolutionary government. Aguinaldo had him arrested for treason, and on May 10, Bonifacio was executed.

Old habits die hard. A century has passed since those volatile early days of the republic, yet the methods utilized by politicians to gain power have hardly changed. Even with the memory of Marcos's heavy-handed vote-rigging still fresh, not-so-legal electoral activities continue to feature in the country's polls, if less blatantly than under the dictator's rule. "Cheating has been done in the Philippines since time immemorial," says election lawyer Romeo Macalintal. "Even if Filipinos don't like it, the average person thinks he can't do anything about it."

And as the May 11 polls near, in which the country's 34 million eligible voters will elect the president who will lead them into the 21st century (as well as a host of other officeholders from senators to mayors), the specter of cheating is raising its head again. Vice President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, the frontrunner among the 10 presidential hopefuls, has even accused the outgoing administration of a plot to carry out the most extreme form of electoral manipulation: assassination. Given his immense popularity among the masses, says the former action star and college dropout, "the only way to stop me from being president is to kill me."

Your usual pre-election mudslinging perhaps, but Estrada's lead over other "presidentiables" is indeed so commanding that, barring his death, massive election fraud would probably be the only thing that would give his rivals any chance of victory - or some late and drastic realignments of the political forces ranged against him.

A mid-April poll conducted by the Philippine Survey and Research Center (PSRC) indicated that Estrada enjoyed a 34% popularity rating. In second place was the Aksyon Demokratiko party's Raul Roco, who had 12%. Tied for third place with
11% apiece were Manila mayor Alfredo "Dirty Harry" Lim; former Cebu governor Emilio "Lito" Osmeña; and President Fidel Ramos's anointed successor and Estrada's main rival, Jose de Venecia of the ruling Lakas-NUCD party.

Fellow presidential candidate Miriam Santiago, who came second behind Ramos in 1992, is certain the ruling party will resort to underhanded tactics. "As sure as the sun rises in the East, this administration will cheat in this coming election," she said recently. Her assertion is based on her own experience in the last presidential poll. She continues to claim that she was cheated out of victory by Ramos, and her case was recently given a boost when Resurreccion Borra of the Commission on Elections, a constitutionally established poll-watching body, stated - without mentioning any names - that electoral fraud had been committed in 1992.

Assertions of cheating of course do not necessarily mean Lakas will - or did - commit fraud. Estrada has warned of a possible revolt of the masses if the ruling party uses foul means to deny him the presidency. But President Ramos steadfastly maintains that he would never compromise his personal integrity or that of his government just to win. "We will not cheat," he declares. "The opposition would like the public to believe the administration is out to create fraud and even chaos. But more than any other party, it is the administration party that is committed to honest, orderly peaceful elections. These processes must be
credible to our people and to the outside world." The head of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections, Jose Concepcion Jr., thinks Ramos will keep his word. "A clean and honest election will be Ramos's legacy to the Philippine people," he says. "He will not risk destroying all he has done just to cheat for his candidate."

But if Lakas - or any other party - sticks to the straight and narrow, will it have any chance of overtaking Estrada? Charges of incompetence, crude nationalism, poor educational background, health problems, gambling and adultery have so far failed to adversely affect Erap's standing among the masses. Critics may see him as an overweight buffoon, but it is an image he practically revels in.

Still, the administration believes he can be defeated. Ramos dismisses the vice president's campaign as one based on "media hype and movies and entertainment and popularity" and asserts that the proven track record of Lakas will ultimately prevail. "It's the politics of good governance, which we are, through our campaigning, making people understand, realize and see with their eyes."

Roco echoes similar sentiments. In the end, he says, voters will choose the one best suited for the presidency. "The homestretch will be a battle of the most qualified as supposedly popular candidates reach their plateau in their ratings," he says. "The issue is not popularity but qualifications."

Lakas campaign manager Cesar Sarino also notes that ratings are not necessarily what they seem. "Survey results are not votes," he says. "Survey results vary depending on sample size, methodology and questionnaires, all dependent on users' requests and objectives." The fact that the PSRC poll was funded by Estrada's LaMMP party provides ammunition for skeptics, though the PSRC insists his 34% lead is "broad-based, secure and unbeatable."

Meanwhile, Congressman Jose Cojuangco, a campaign strategist for Lim, points out that many of the poor, who form the core of Estrada's support, did not register during the last general listing. "The so-called support for Erap may not actually be there," he says. For his part, Ramos believes "you cannot depend on just the surveys for your projections."

The ruling party has disclosed its own survey, carried out by Facts Base, Inc., which shows Estrada at 26% and de Venecia at 21%. If the figures are accurate, then Estrada's lead is almost insignificant, given that Lakas can count on considerable government resources and its huge local political machinery. LaMMP has failed to field strong candidates in 19 provincial and 56 congressional districts, meaning that support at the local levels will be significantly greater for de Venecia. "Anytime [de Venecia] gets to within 6% or 7% of Erap, then his chances of winning are very bright," reckons Senator Ernesto Maceda, who is a contender for mayor of Manila. Traditionally, control of government machinery adds 10% to a candidate's vote, while a presidential endorsement, especially by someone as popular as Ramos, could mean another 10% to 15%. Yet another factor is last-minute withdrawals and the impact on remaining contestants. On April 29, former first lady Imelda Marcos announced she would no longer be running for president. She declined to say whom she might back, but her son Ferdinand Jr. urged her to support Estrada. De Venecia's people reckon, however, that their man benefits since he hails from the north, just like Imelda's husband, the late president Marcos.

Also possibly strengthening de Venecia's position is the endorsement of influential religious groups. The Jesus Is Lord (JIL) Protestant ministry, headed by Brother Eddie Villanueva, organized a huge rally in Manila to show its support for the Lakas campaign. Ramos, the country's first Protestant president, was there to urge the two-million-strong crowd to "use the survey of God to guide us and not the survey of any earthly institution."

As he compared de Venecia to the Biblical character Joshua, Ramos read from the Scriptures, quoting God's message to the Hebrew leader: "Be strong and courageous, for you will bring the Israelites into the land I promised them on my oath, and I myself will be with you." Bold words from Ramos, but Villanueva was even bolder. "The president's choice is God's choice!" he announced.

Whether he has God's endorsement is an open question, but Ramos knows that the votes represented by JIL, which claims a following of three million, are worth genuflecting to. De Venecia also has the support of another Protestant group, Jesus Miracle Crusade, which claims a membership of one million. And the two-million-strong El Shaddai Catholic movement is also expected to throw its weight behind the ruling party. In all, these religious groups constitute a significant support base - that is, if their members vote as a bloc. But they won't, say other presidential candidates. "JIL and El Shaddai members are not like
cows that can be herded by the nose," says Juan Ponce Enrile. "There is no such thing as a religious vote."

The religious groups obviously don't believe that (Estrada himself has the support of one, Iglesia ni Cristo, which has the following of over 2% of the population). Neither does the Catholic Church. Not only has it endorsed Alfredo Lim, it has also issued an "anti-endorsement" - for Estrada. Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin has made no secret of his opposition to the v.p.'s candidacy. Frets the prelate: "The most probable winner may be the most probably disastrous for the country."

But will Estrada really be that disastrous for the Philippines? On the foreign-affairs front, maybe not - at least according to Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon, a onetime high-school classmate of Estrada. "Our foreign policy is not going to change drastically," he says. "Foreign policy is not dictated by the philosophy of a sitting president but by the requirements of national
security and economic policy."

Come July 22, Manila will be the venue for a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers and their dialogue partners from Japan, China, India, the U.S., the European Union, Canada and Russia. Estrada may well be the host. His detractors may balk at the scenario, but it will perhaps mean that the people have spoken, that Philippine democracy, for all its flaws and weaknesses, is working. And that is a legacy Ramos - and fellow Filipinos - should rightly be proud of.

With reporting by Wilhelmina Paras / Manila


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