MANILA // More than 50 million Filipinos go to the polls today to elect a new president and nearly 18,000 candidates for national and local posts in the country's first fully automated election. If the opinion polls are right, the senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, who has had a comfortable lead over his two main rivals - the senator Manuel "Manny" Villar and Joseph "Erap" Estrada, a former president - since campaigning began in February, is headed for a landslide victory.
Whether or not he will usher in the honest and transparent government that many Filipinos desire remains to be seen. For the incumbent, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it will end nine years of rule in which the US-educated economist showed much promise, but is leaving office as the most hated and corrupt president since the dark days of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, in an editorial yesterday, said: "The national campaign - correctly, to our mind - has focused both on the election being a referendum on the present administration's nine years of brinkmanship and impunity and on the alternatives being proposed to compensate for a decade of lost national opportunities for growth, stability and progress."
When she steps down at midnight on June 30, Mrs Arroyo will leave behind a budget deficit in excess of US$3 billion (Dh11bn), a human rights record not seen since the Marcos days, increased poverty, festering Muslim and communist insurgencies and a country mired in corruption at all levels of society. A poll in April by the Social Weather Stations, a Manila-based public opinion service, showed Mrs Arroyo's net satisfaction rating among Filipinos at minus 53, the lowest since democratic elections began in 1986 after the ousting of Marcos. The figure meant nearly seven out of 10 Filipinos did not approve of her performance.
Her former economics adviser, Joey Salceda, said in an interview in March that under Mrs Arroyo "the rich have got richer and the poorer". Mrs Arroyo, however, boasts that she has been able to deliver 34 quarters of uninterrupted economic expansion during her presidency. But the beneficiaries have been the elites, big business and the politicians, according to the economics professor Ben Diokno of the University of the Philippines. Nothing has filtered down to the poor, who make up more than 50 per cent of the country's 92 million people.
Data from the National Statistical Coordination Board show that the number of Filipinos living on 1,200 pesos (Dh97) a month has risen to nearly 30 million from 25.47 million in 2001 in a country where the population continues to grow at between 2.1 per cent and 2.3 per cent annually, the fastest in South East Asia. A devout Roman Catholic, Mrs Arroyo has done nothing to bring the birth rate down, instead bowing to the Church, which campaigns against the use of contraception. Robin Padilla, a popular local actor who endorses condom use on late-night television, is being sued by a pro-life senate candidate who claims the ads are against "public decency and morality".
Those who have worked with Mrs Arroyo describe her as having a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue. As one former member of her cabinet, who did not want to be named, said in an interview: "If things did not go her way she would often explode like a volcano. But one thing I can say in her favour is that she worked extremely hard and she expected the same from her cabinet." Mrs Arroyo came to power in January 2001 after Mr Estrada was thrown out for graft in what was seen as a military-backed coup led by the Church, many of the country's elite families and leading businessmen. He was later tried and sentenced to life for corruption, only to be pardoned by Mrs Arroyo.
Without a real mandate, Mrs Arroyo, who had been Mr Estrada's vice president, found it difficult to claim legitimacy as she completed his term. But she soon realised the key to power was securing the support of generals in the military and police. At last count, Mrs Arroyo had more than 30 retired generals either in her cabinet or heading various government agencies. According to the Australian political scientist Gill Boehringer from Macquarie University: "The president's continuance in office has depended on the maintenance of the loyalty of the generals through patronage, which is an old Filipino political tradition."
This was particularly so during the failed military mutiny in 2003, the failed coup attempt by scout rangers in 2006 and the 2004 general election in which the military played a significant role in rigging the ballot in her favour, according to political observers. Mrs Arroyo has managed to improve infrastructure with new toll roads, a maritime roll-on-roll-off nautical motorway linking the major islands of the country, new airports and an upgraded railway system in Manila.
But much of the housing that has been built for the poor has been done with the help of non-government organisations, and the jobs she claims to have created are low-paying manual jobs such as street sweepers. Business process outsourcing has boomed and overseas workers last year sent home $17bn in remittances - about 10 per cent of gross domestic product. Mrs Arroyo often talks proudly of her "legacy", but most Filipinos will remember her not as a reformist president but one mired in greed and corruption.
Her husband, Mike, has been referred to in the Senate as the "biggest smuggler in the country" and "Mrs Arroyo's bag man". Her election victory in 2004, many say, was stolen from her opponent, the former actor Fernando Poe Jr. In what later became know as the "Hello Garci" scandal, a tape-recorded conversation was released the following year on which Mrs Arroyo was heard calling the Commission on Elections commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano, about the vote. He tells her that a million votes had been secured. Mrs Arroyo defeated Poe by a margin of just over one million votes.
Mrs Arroyo later went on national television to say it was her voice on the tape but she was only asking about the count in Mindanao and apologised for her "lapse in judgment". Mr Aquino has promised that if elected he will set up a special commission to look into the Arroyos and their accumulated wealth. His mother did the same to track down the Marcos billions but over the past 22 years the Presidential Commission for Good Government has recovered less than $1bn of the estimated $10bn Marcos stole. email@example.com