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Philippine Election Season Gets Underway

The election season in the Philippines opens on December 15 when candidates for president begin to officially file their bids for the top post. Analysts say popularity is crucial in Philippine polities, but can overshadow the real issues facing the impoverished nation.

When popular Philippine movie star Fernando Poe Junior announced his presidential bid in November, analysts said it could spell doom for President Gloria Arroyo's chances to remain in power. Mr. Poe is a high school dropout who does not have any political experience, but he has the adoration of generations of moviegoers who idolize his Robin Hood-like screen characters.

Ms. Arroyo's popularity rating, on the other hand, is slipping because of corruption allegations, a political crisis and plots against her government.

In a nation where media is powerful, analysts say popularity can decide national elections - allowing newscasters, actors, sports stars and even people with a few moments of fame - an easy election to public office. One actor - Joseph Estrada - became president in 1999 only to be ousted for alleged corruption in 2001.

Next year's vice presidential election is looking like a fight between two former news anchors turned senators.

Mr. Poe and other media personalities are packaged as candidates who are untainted by bureaucratic corruption and as champions of the masses.

Joel Rocamora, director of the independent think tank Institute of Popular Democracy in Manila, says political agendas do not figure highly in the minds of most voters. He says only about 30 percent of the 38 million voters in the Philippines consider the issues before they vote. "The remaining 70 percent vote blind because political parties, are irrelevant and platforms are even more irrelevant," he says. "So people vote without any basis at all for making their judgments and so elections become a matter of name recall."

Political observers say this is because for years, politicians have not delivered on their promises of better living conditions for millions of impoverished Filipinos. In a survey by the Social Weather Stations released in early December, 43 percent of respondents say they are not satisfied with the current government.

One woman from a poor part of Manila says Mr. Poe is someone who would listen to her problems. But other analysts say some voters are becoming wary of media and entertainment personalities-as-politicians after the fall of Mr. Estrada. One housewife says Mr. Poe should first run for village representative before seeking the presidency.

In the meantime, surveys show President Arroyo is falling behind her competitors in terms of public support. In November, Ms. Arroyo struggled to break a political stalemate between the judiciary and Congress instigated by her opposition. Recent kidnappings targeted at the Chinese community have made the public question her ability to enforce law and order.

But Philippine political expert Belinda Aquino of the University of Hawaii says Ms. Arroyo retains some advantage. "President Arroyo has what they call the "equity of incumbents" - to be able to use government resources to her advantage," she says.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief, and former education secretary Raul Roco have also announced they are challenging Ms. Arroyo's bid.

All candidates lined up so far say they will end corruption and poverty - one of the main problems facing the Philippines. But after hearing empty promises for many years, many voters say the real question is, will any of these candidates finally deliver?