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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 15:26 GMT
Philippine presidency race begins
By Sarah Toms
Manila

An action hero, a former policeman hounded by murder allegations and an economist invoking a Taiwanese boy band may seem like characters in an unusual movie.

But in the Philippines, they are all seeking the role of president in elections on 10 May.

"We have politicians who want to be celebrities and celebrities who want to become politicians and neither are doing a good job in what they profess they want to be," said Guillermo Luz, Executive Director of the influential Makati Business Club.

Philippine ballot boxes
The election campaign starts on Tuesday for the vote on 10 May

"Showbiz and media seem to be the avenue which people can be known and get to be known by the largest number of people possible in a short span of time."

Personalities, not issues, usually dominate campaigns in one of Asia's most chaotic democracies.

Filipinos have been kept largely in the dark about how the candidates plan to deal with corruption, huge debts, security threats and widespread poverty.

Rivals

"It concerns me there isn't a clear policy direction. But that's nothing new. With some exception that's the way Philippine politics has always been," Steven Rood, head of the Asia Foundation in Manila told BBC News Online.

"The business community in the Philippines, like many people in the middle classes, is getting weary of waiting for reform to happen. They are looking for sound leadership."

Gloria Arroyo
Philippines President Gloria Arroyo
Incumbent president
Aged 56
Accused of lacking charisma
Faced army mutiny in 2003

Dozens of hopefuls, among them a self-proclaimed messiah, tried to join the leadership race but only President Gloria Arroyo and five rivals got permission to run.

Campaigning began long before the official start on 10 February.

Fernando Poe Jr, an action movie hero since the 1950s, is loved by millions of fans and runs consistently first in opinion polls, despite being a high school dropout with no political experience.

Ms Arroyo, an economist, seen as lacking the charisma of her rivals, injected some glamour to help her bid for a fresh term.

"Other than naming her coalition after a Taiwanese boy band (K4), she also has two movie actors in her senate slate and her vice presidential candidate got into politics because of his experience as a news anchor," said Joel Rocamoro of the Institute for Popular Democracy, an independent think-tank.

"She is hoping she can make up for the advantage of Fernando Poe Jr," he said. "I think what will work more is machinery."

Many political analysts see a two-way race shaping up between Mr Poe and Ms Arroyo.

Interests

A former education secretary, Raul Roco, runs third in the polls and has a strong support base among students and professionals. But the lawyer, famous for his Hawaiian shirts, lacks the resources of a party as an independent candidate.

Panfilo Lacson, a former head of the national police, has not been able to shake rumours of links to an execution-style killing of 11 suspected kidnappers.

He grabbed headlines last year by accusing Ms Arroyo's husband of corruption but has split the opposition vote by refusing to yield to Mr Poe.

Guillermo Luz, Executive Director of the Makati Business Club
Poe's team is looking very much like Estrada's team, so that's not giving a lot of comfort to people
Guillermo Luz
Makati Business Club

A television evangelist, Eduardo Villanueva, and businessman Eddie Gil rank low in surveys as potential presidents.

Vote-buying, cheating and intimidation are routine in Philippine elections.

Politicians add to the confusion by hopping from one party to another.

As the saying goes here, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Estrada link

"There's virtually no incentive of staying with a party and there's virtually no penalty for shifting parties," Mr Rood said.

"People do it for short-term political advantages."

Ms Arroyo's reforms have had only limited success since she rose from vice president when Joseph Estrada was chased out as leader by a popular revolt in 2001.

Fernando Poe Jr
Fernando Poe, Jr
Actor and film producer
Aged 64
No political experience
Ties to Estrada

But Mr Poe's close friendship with Mr Estrada, who is now on trial for economic plunder, has raised a few eyebrows in the business community.

"With Arroyo and her team, people more or less know who they are. People are looking closely at who is on Poe's team and Poe's team is looking very much like Estrada's team, so that's not giving a lot of comfort to people," said Mr Luz of the Makati Business Club.

But the film star's lack of experience may work to his advantage among jaded voters.

"I am voting for Poe because he's not a politician," said one taxi driver in Manila.

"Politicians just can't be trusted."


SEE ALSO:
Philippines delays executions
28 Jan 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Actor seeks Philippine presidency
26 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Gloria Arroyo
28 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: The Philippines
09 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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