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Friday, January 30, 1998 Published at 20:44 GMT

image: [ From our own correspondent John McLean ] Democracy Philippines-style

John McLean
Reporting from Philippines

Next month sees the official start of campaigning in the Philippines for elections later this year, when voters are to choose a new President, a new Congress, and new local governments. The Philippines sees itself as a bastion of democracy in East Asia, in contrast with its more authoritarian, but more prosperous neighbours. John McLean travelled to the far north of the country to take a closer look at the Philippines' democratic credentials.

At the northern tip of the Philippines is the Ilocos region. It's tobacco-growing country. It's also where the late President Ferdinand Marcos came from. And the local hero-turned dictator is still widely admired by his fellow-Ilocanos. Marcos was a good man, they say; it was that Imelda woman who was the troublemaker. Imelda Marcos is not a native of Ilocos.

Yet, Ilocos is more or less as democratic as any other part of the Philippines. Chavit Singson, for example, is the governor of the province of Ilocos Sur, or South Ilocos. Mr Singson was elected by the people. He's been elected governor several times - except on one occasion, when the people elected him as their Congressman in Manila; on that occasion, the people decided that the best man to replace Mr Singson as governor was his brother. Indeed, it seems that anybody who's anybody in the political establishment of Ilocos Sur is called Singson. There was a time when many members of the political establishment were called Crisologo. The Crisologo family and the Singson family were archenemies.

The governor told the story of the feud as he showed me round his lodge just outside the city of Vigan. It began with his struggle against the Crisologos' alleged control of the local tobacco trade. One photograph on the wall, from the 1970s, shows a heated confrontation between a young Mr Singson and a group of armed men, hired by his political rivals, who were trying to prevent him from campaigning. The caption underneath the photograph proudly proclaims: "Warlord country." Nearby, in a glass case, is a bloodstained shirt. This was the shirt Mr Singson was wearing during a meeting, when his enemies attacked with hand grenades. Mr Singson was wounded; 11 other people were killed.

Nowadays, the governor assures me, there is law-and-order in Ilocos Sur. That means he can feel quite safe as he tours his province in his camper van - with its microwave oven; its black-tinted windows; the automatic carbine, complete with 100-round drum magazine, that's left kicking around on the floor; and the thug in the front seat, who looks daggers at you if you so much as lay a finger on it.

Governor Singson says he has the interests of the ordinary people of Ilocos Sur at heart. Below the balcony of his lodge, there's a large, open, but covered area. Here, there's shelter from the sun for his constituents, as they wait their turn for an audience with the governor, hoping that his personal intervention can solve whatever problem they have. As they wait, the supplicants get a grandstand view of Mr Singson's private shooting range.

Mr Singson persuaded the voters to elect him to Congress (on that one occasion) for one specific purpose; so he could have a law passed that would give the provincial governments in tobacco-growing areas - such as Ilocos Sur - a share of the central government's revenue from the taxes on tobacco. Mr Singson was successful. But since he returned to his job as governor, he says his province hasn't received a cent of its share of the tobacco taxes. He says the central government is keeping the money simply out of spite. There's little wonder that the principal guest at his lodge when I was visiting was none other than the main opposition candidate in this year's presidential election, Joseph Estrada.

There's a saying among Filipinos that what decides elections here are guns, goons and gold: gold being the money to bribe the voters, guns being the alternative method of persuading those voters who you can't bribe, and goons being the thugs who wield their guns.

The Ilocos region is more or less as democratic as anywhere else in the Philippines. Yet the story of its most famous son, Ferdinand Marcos, contains a lesson about Philippine politics - at least, according to the more cynical observers. Under the dictatorship, only President Marcos and his cronies were allowed to use their guns, goons and gold. Now that democracy has been restored, anybody is allowed to use their guns, goons and gold.

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