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Celebrities, Guns Catch Headlines in Philippine Elections


Personalities, money, families and violence are dominant features of the May 14 elections in the Philippines where nearly 18,000 positions in local and national government are up for grabs. The main focus is on the congress, where President Gloria Arroyo has defeated two impeachment bids, but a major power shift appears unlikely. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila.

All 220 districts are up for grabs in the House of Representatives, plus dozens of so-called party-list seats that are elected nationally. Despite fielding 144 candidates, the opposition does not expect to win a majority.

Adel Tomano is an opposition spokesman.

"About 40 of the candidates are sure winners … all our other candidates are winnable candidates, but we don't like to boast, to give an overly optimistic outlook," Tomano says.

President Arroyo's allies control the House.

In the Senate, the opposition dominates. Twelve seats, half the Senate, are up for election. A poll commissioned by the Philippine Daily Inquirer shows the opposition taking six seats, the administration four, and independents two.

Beneath the numbers, Philippine politics remains a free-for-all of personalities with athletes, military men, priests and others in the race.

Super featherweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, known as Pacman, is running as a pro-administration House candidate. While Pacman has scored knockouts in the ring, it is unclear how much punch he carries in politics.

On the opposition, a former navy lieutenant facing charges for taking part in a coup attempt is running for Senator. Campaigning from a military jail, Antonio Trillanes says the country needs fresh reforms by a new government, and that being in custody will not prevent him from serving the people.

Several priests are running for positions around the mostly Catholic nation. One, Father Ed Panlilio, is running for governor of Pampanga province, President Arroyo's home turf.

Tonypet Albano, a spokesman for a group of pro-administration candidates called Team Unity, says the variety is a healthy thing.

"Politically it shows that we are a very democratic nation," Albano says. "That anyone, as laid out in the constitution, is qualified to run. … We are not barring anyone, whether or not he is a boxer or even a person in jail, (he) could run for public office and even senator of our land, just as long as they are not yet convicted of any crimes."

More established politicians from powerful political families also are in the race. For instance, Francis Escudero, a prominent opposition member of the House, is going for a Senate seat. He says the country, which only emerged from the Marcos dictatorship two decades ago, is going through a learning curve.

"We are going through the process of a child learning how to walk or ride a bicycle," Escudero says. "The Philippines is a relatively young democracy and we have to go through such growing pains of a young democracy to be able to learn the ropes, so to speak. But as each election goes by I think it slowly but surely being more issued-oriented than previous elections."

Money is another prominent element of elections here.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez offered a $211 prize to district officials in his home province who deliver a victory for all 12 administration Senate candidates.

He says this is legal because he is not a candidate. While this appeal is public, money is circulated in other, less visible ways.

Ramon Casiple, of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms, says it lubricates the political system.

"Money is given not on the party level," Casiple says. "It is given basically on the level of the candidate on the higher position. For example, I am a governor. I may give money to a mayoral candidate who has the constituency to give the votes for me in that particular place. That mayoralty candidate may not be of the same party as the governor. It may even be from the opposing side."

Violence remains a nasty feature of Philippine politics. Candidates and their supporters across the country have been killed in bold, public attacks. Officials say the flagrant nature of the attacks is alarming, and the military has been called out to help ensure safety and order.

Behind the personalities and the violence, there are political issues. The opposition accuses President Arroyo of corruption and cheating in the 2004 presidential election. But that position apparently has not gathered large public support so far, and analysts say the opposition is not likely to win enough House seats to impeach the president.

The economy plays a role. The Arroyo administration says it has presided over a period of relative prosperity, with rapid growth, a strengthening currency, a falling budget deficit and a growing call-center business.

But critics say the success is due mostly to the $12 billion a year that Filipinos working abroad send home, while local investment, which is required to for sustained growth, remains weak.

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