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Philippine elections a regional test case

In this story:

By Maria Ressa
CNN Correspondent

May 8, 1998
Web posted at: 9:55 a.m. EDT (0955 GMT)
Ressa

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The upcoming elections in the Philippines promise to be a kind of regional test case for the combination of economic development and democracy.

On Monday, Filipinos will select the country's president and vice president, along with more than 17,300 national and local officials, from a field of more than 100,000 candidates.

Each voter will write in their choices for about 40 different positions. The results won't be known for two to four weeks, since votes are counted manually.

"Honest and peaceful elections this May will emphasize that democracy works, and will emphasize the difference between this country and other countries in the region," says Solita Monsod, a member of former President Corazon Aquino's cabinet.

Young democracy a regional novelty

The Philippines has become somewhat unique in Southeast Asia, where authoritarian leaders have often championed economic growth at the cost of what many regard as political development.

Notably, after these elections, the Philippines will be the only country in the region with two living past presidents.

The break with its own dictatorship, that of Ferdinand Marcos, came with the People Power revolt in 1986. The election of Aquino, a housewife, became a beacon of democracy credited with helping to inspire populist movements in Beijing and South Korea.

Aquino's 6 years as president were characterized by indecision on major policy issues, including the renewal of U.S. bases in the country. A treaty to renew their stay was rejected by the Philippine Senate, and U.S. troops pulled out in 1992.

But Aquino's chief accomplishment was significant: She preserved the fragile and fractured democracy long enough to hand it to her elected successor, Fidel Ramos.

Ramos was elected with 24 percent of the vote from a field of seven candidates. When he took office in 1992, the Philippine economy had stagnated, lengthy and daily power failures were the norm, and investor confidence was low after years of economic mismanagement.

Many of the Philippines' neighbors thought this was not the time to champion democracy. Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew embarrassed Ramos during a 1992 visit by saying the Philippines needed "discipline more than democracy" to develop.

But during his six-year term, Ramos was widely credited with rebuilding the Philippine economy: dismantling monopolies, liberalizing trade, reforming the banking sector and even restoring reliable electricity.

Economic strength novel, too

The Philippines also has the distinction of doing well despite the region's economic problems.

The economy's strength has allowed the Philippines to be freed from the supervision of the International Monetary Fund for the first time in more than 30 years. By contrast, the Philippines' neighbors were forced by a regional currency crisis to seek the IMF's help.

The Philippines now is the only country in the region predicted to have growth rates of nearly 2.5 percent this year; some neighboring economies are expected to contract.

Some analysts also give the Philippine economy a year to recover from Asia's financial crisis, as compared with 3 to 5 years for other nations.

Coping with 10 choices for president

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In 1986, the lines were clearly drawn in the election between Aquino and Marcos: good vs. evil. The reality in today's Philippines is far more confusing, with 10 candidates running for president.

Ramos and Aquino are backing different candidates, splintering their supporters.

Aquino is campaigning for Alfredo Lim, nicknamed "Dirty Harry." He stands for law and order, but critics fear what they see as his vigilante techniques.

Ramos is campaigning for Jose De Venecia, the speaker of the House who helped pass more than 200 economic and social reforms through the often-unwieldy Congress.

But in some views, De Venecia's consensus-building style has trapped him in the negative image of the traditional politician.

As columnist Nelson Navarro points out, "Without De Venecia, there would be no Ramos miracle. At the same time, it is also a negative point for De Venecia because he played bad cop to the good cop of Ramos."

The man who has been leading widely in some polls is former movie star and current Vice President Joseph Estrada. He carries shadows of the past, when politics was dominated only by glamour and celebrities.

Estrada's Robin Hood image has captured the imagination of the poor. But he is widely criticized by the business community, many of whom fear the college dropout would not be able to handle the economy.

Still, even former first lady Imelda Marcos seems to have recognized that times have changed. After campaigning for three months -- even while appealing a 12-year prison sentence for graft -- she dropped out of the presidential race in April.

"Filipinos [now] look at Imelda as a pathetic figure. She's an element of the past that just wouldn't go away," said Alex Magno, a professor at the University of the Philippines.

The idealistic youth vote

Filipino youths

There is a new force in these elections: the Filipino youth. Nearly a third of those expected to vote, or about 6 million Filipinos, are 18 to 21 years old and voting for the first time. In a splintered field, that's enough to elect a president.

Young voters also help account for an increasing emphasis on ideas rather than image.

In a mock election at the University of the Philippines, the winning candidate was Raul Roco, a former senator campaigning on a concrete platform of ideas and ideals: an end to graft and corruption, and a clean and honest government accountable to the people.

But the threat of election fraud persists. Commonly known as "dagdag-bawas" -- literally "add-subtract" -- evidence shows zeros were added at the ends of vote tallies in past elections.

That isn't the only way politicians cheat. Padding the voters list is a common practice. Already, in some areas, the number of registered voters has more than doubled; in one case, 2,000 voters are registered to the same address.

And of course, the simplest way may be to buy votes. The going rate in these elections is about $5 to $12.

Despite all that, many analysts say these elections will be credible, with not one but three citizens groups watching the voting and the counting.

And in a country where a 70 percent turnout is considered low, Filipinos say these elections will prove that democracy and development can work hand-in-hand in Southeast Asia.

 
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