Learning to Count in the Philippines

Roman Catholics and Protestants on May 9 pray for peaceful polls ahead of the Philippine presidential election in the southern city of Cotabato, Philippines. (Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem/ Getty Images)

In a first for the Philippines—a country with intermittent electricity supply and a history of electoral fraud—a computerized system is being used instead of the manual count used in most countries. Despite the fact that 11th-hour glitches meant the recall and re-programming of 76,000 flash cards used to scan votes in the optical scan machines, the electoral oversight body (Comelec) remained confident that the elections will go through.

Whether the equipment will be ready and distributed across the whole archipelago in time remains to be seen. However, Comelec is resisting calls from candidates and media to conduct a manual count in parallel and as a backup to the computerized alternative.

The "saint" in question is Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, son of former President and democracy icon Cory, who died in August 2009. A poll published Friday put Mr. Aquino at 41 percent, over double that of the second-place candidate. Aquino has capitalized on the family lineage—an aura of martyrdom, heroism and clean hands that dates back to the 1986 People's Power Revolution—in a country listed by Transparency International as more graft-prone than Pakistan or Liberia.

The saintly epithet was applied, ruefully and sardonically, by the CEO rival candidate Manny Villar. His rags-to-riches story puts him at odds, he feels, with Aquino, who comes from a political dynasty rooted in the Filipino landed elite. Speaking at a rally on Thursday, Mr. Villar recounted helping his mother selling fish at a market at age seven, in contrast to Aquino's aristocratic background. This is in turn belied by Noynoy Aquino's unassuming demeanor and apparent disinterest in wealth. The encouraging paradox is that these attributes make him stand out from the usual ostentation of Filipino politics.

Villar has been president of the Senate since 2006. He touts himself as the builder of a $220 million per-annum business, saying that he can do something similar for the Philippines, which has seen overall levels of poverty increase over the last decade, even as the economy grew by around 5 percent per annum on average.

Is Villar a new type of politician? Or a self-made Thaksin-esque figure ready to challenge an oligarchy? Some say yes, some say no. Already a long time senator, "his wealth has elevated him into the elites," said Eugene Martin. This is a criticism made of Thaksin by those in Thailand who opposed his administration and resented his nouveau-riche brashness. Martin, an ex-U.S. diplomat and former executive director of the USIP Philippine Facilitation Project, sees Villar as pitching his wealth as positive. He thinks that it "allows him to not depend on contributions from interest groups and individuals, but you don't see signs of new voices or ideas."

"I will foster a very competitive environment and demand results," Villar said. Mr Aquino, by contrast, is deemed a less-dynamic figure, with few accomplishments of note during his political career to date. However, he has been assertive on the campaign trail, successfully-tarnishing Villar as having at least tacit support from the deeply unpopular incumbent Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Arroyo's own party candidate Gilberto Teodoro languishes in fourth place and seems out of the running.

Villar's glossy and expensive TV-oriented campaign has not paid off, it seems, and "Villarroyo," as Aquino has dubbed him, looks set to finish a distant second. It might get worse; if the swing in opinion shown in recent polls is maintained on May 10 when Filipinos go to the polls, he may cede the runners-up slot to former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, an aging, high-living movie star who made his own political career partly out of an image of being in touch with the common man. Friday morning's poll put Mr. Estrada at 20 percent, one point ahead of Villar.

But Estrada personifies a chutzpah that runs through politics in the Philippines. Ousted in 2001 by the People's Power II street protests, Erap did time afterwards for corruption offences and abuse of office. Nonetheless, he is a live candidate and is not alone in shrugging off a controversial history. Imelda Marcos, widow of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator driven from power in 1986, is chasing a Congressional seat.

She will be joined by another formidable matriarch of Filipino politics, outgoing President Arroyo. Feet on the street brought her into office as a replacement for Estrada, but her nine-year administration has been marred with controversy, most notoriously the "Hello Garci" scandal in 2004. Seeking re-election, she was recorded discussing her presumed victory with the then-head of Comelec before the votes had been counted. Getting away with that and alleged widespread vote-buying on Mindanao, she spent much of 2009 pushing a constitutional amendment that would switch the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. Prevented from running again for president, Arroyo is running for Parliament now, though the failure of her constitutional reform gambit means that she cannot retain power in a Putin-esque switch of roles to prime minister.

However, she is hoping to acquire enough allies in Parliament and the judiciary to set up a de facto opposition to the next president. Whether this will work out remains to be seen. In the country's ephemeral and personality-oriented party system, MPs often seek links with the president. If Noynoy is a clear winner, she may struggle. Eugene Martin believes that the "almost universal hatred she has generated will undermine her efforts to build an alternative power base. But it also depends on who is elected and his ability to attract political support."

However, election hopes are being tempered with what cynical Filipinos might term a conspiracist reality. The credibility of the process comes under question as Comelec and Smartmatic/TIM—the company that won the tender to implement the hi-tech ballot system—struggle to get the computerized system ready on time. The word on the street—a theatre for some of the Philippines' most evocative and dramatic political moments in the past—is cynical and dead-pan. "I hope you have sharp eyes," said Carl, a shopkeeper close to the Makati Central Business District. "One way or another, votes can go missing here, or appear from nowhere."

According to a nationwide poll published on April 16, 71 percent of Filipinos believe vote-buying will take place in their own precincts. Some 51 percent expect cheating in counting votes, 48 percent believe there will be "flying voters," or those who go from precinct to precinct to vote multiple times. 45 percent expect voter harassment and 37 percent expect violence. Nonetheless, turnout is predicted to be 75-80 percent, high by any standards.

But under the shadow of an untried and so far faulty computer system, fears are growing that the real outcome might be undermined and the electorate traduced. Noynoy has threatened to take to the streets if flaws or irregularities are detected. Does that mean he will invoke People Power if he does not win, an outcome he must feel is now almost certain? On Thursday he said, "If we have a correct counting of the votes, I think we will be very victorious."

So it seems. But if elected, even in a landslide, can the low-key and apparently humble scion of two national heroes emerge as the long-awaited national savior? Beatification may be premature as, irrespective of good intentions, it may be beyond Aquino to carry out effective reform of how politics is conducted and the economy structured.

If change is coming, it may be in the future. There are some "young Turks" coming through, according to Mon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. Even though most of the candidates are from traditional political families, there are "more and more young-generation politicians taking over from the older, more traditional politicians," Casiple said.

Even so, a big Aquino win might not be enough for him to push a reformist program. Based at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank that analyses international relations across Asia, Malcolm Cook is a long-time watcher of politics in the Philippines. He is pessimistic about Aquino's prospects, telling this correspondent that "most see him as not a forceful figure, though I think he is the best of the three main candidates."

Even his late mother, who had a mandate to take the country in a new direction after 1986, is regarded as having done too little—or perhaps been unable to untangle or challenge the vested interests that remain dominant in the Philippines. So, even if the new computer system fails, the country has other structures that work only too well, and to the detriment of the tens of millions of poor scattered across the country. As Mr. Cook said, in light of the root of the country's deep political problems, "It is really more the system in the Philippines rather than who wins in it that is important."

This article was originally published by ISN:

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