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Philippine Presidential Campaign Swings Into High Gear - 2004-02-12

Philippine presidential hopefuls took to the streets this week in what promises to be another colorful, contentious and potentially bloody election campaign. Presidential aspirant and local movie idol, Fernando Poe Jr. - or FPJ as he is know to his fans - set the campaign ball rolling with a colorful and noisy rally at a packed stadium in Manila Tuesday.

Six hopefuls, including President Gloria Arroyo who is seeking a fresh term after replacing Joseph Estrada in 2001, will be battling for the presidency when voters go to the polls in May.

Elections in the mainly Roman Catholic nation of 82 million people are typically festive affairs marked by crooning movie stars, gyrating dancers and legions of adoring supporters.

They are also acrimonious. Vote buying, intimidation and shootouts are commonplace, especially in far-flung parts of the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands.

This year's race could be even more contentious. A troubled economy, and a deep rich-poor divide between the supporters of President Arroyo and her closest rival Mr. Poe have set the stage for a no holds barred contest. Antonio Gatmaitan is head of a local political and economic policy group.

"There's an undercurrent of a class war that's what's different of this election than before," he said. "The well offs are battling themselves against the D and E, the lower income groups. This was started during Estrada's time but it was cut off because he was removed from power you see."

Mr. Poe is viewed by many Filipinos as a virtual stand-in for close friend and fellow movie actor Mr. Estrada, who was lionized by the poor before being ousted from the presidency in a popular revolt.

Aurea Regasa, a 47-year-old part time teacher, says Mr. Poe is the poor people's choice.

"Even though he is only an actor, I think he can manage the people and he can settle also our problems," said Aurea Regasa.

The focus on personalities, rather than platforms at a time the country's economy is slipping against its neighbors, has got the business community and other observers worried.

One local newspaper in an editorial noted: "This time we want to hear specifics. The next six years will determine whether we can ever regain our footing in a highly competitive globalized environment or whether we will be doomed to be the basket case in a region long associated with dynamic growth."

Bill Luz, spokesman for a powerful business lobby group in Manila, says disillusionment with elite politicians who failed to deliver on election promises has pushed many of the poor to pin their hopes on show business stars instead.

"The traditional politicians have also failed the people and the reasoning among people is that hey you are supposed to be so good, so bright yet what have you done for us," he said. "Rather the mentality is "hey shouldn't I take chances with someone who hasn't been there?"

Mr. Luz says the Philippines needs to strengthen the party system, force elected politicians to give up their regular jobs and scrap discretionary funds used by lawmakers.

For now though, the baby kissing and show business razzmatazz of past campaigns shows no sign of ending.

At Tuesday's three-hour extravaganza, Mr. Poe, a high school dropout, said little about policy beyond a vague promise to alleviate poverty, a time honored pledge in a country where more than 30 percent of the population do not get enough to eat.