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Arroyo-Poe Contest Highlights Philippines Election Campaign - 2004-02-10

The three-month Philippine election campaign has kicked off with colorful rallies across the country. The presidential race is widely seen as a contest between incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and action movie star Fernando Poe, Jr. There are four other presidential hopefuls running and 17,000 other posts up for grabs across the country.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo started her campaign off by attending an early morning church service along with several movie stars in Laguna province, south of Manila. The president, who is in second place behind political neophyte Fernando Poe, Jr., in popularity polls, then headed to rallies in nearby towns.

Posters of the 56-year-old Mrs. Arroyo promised "food, housing, jobs and education" if she is elected for six more years.

Mrs. Arroyo was elected vice president in 1998, and became president three years ago when massive street protests ousted President Joseph Estrada. The former movie star is now in prison waiting trial on corruption charges.

President Arroyo is asking Philippine voters to choose her experience over the popularity of her movie star rival, Mr. Poe. She says her campaign will focus on issues.

Joel Rocamora, a political analyst with the Institute of Popular Democracy in Manila, says Philippine elections have never been based on issues.

"For most of a century," he said, "elections have been a matter of picking individuals, and when there have been political parties, the political parties have been not much more than shifting gangs of violent old men."

Campaigns in the predominately Roman Catholic country are traditionally run like town fiestas, and the 2004 elections are no exception.

At a Manila stadium, the 64-year-old Mr. Poe began his campaign with a rally headlined by his movie star pals and the gyrations of the "Sex Bomb Dancers." He told 20,000 cheering supporters that "poverty is the greatest scandal in our country" and urged change for a brighter future.

Mr. Poe has packed his campaign team with friends of the disgraced Mr. Estrada and close associates of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted by a revolt in 1986.

He has said little about issues, or what his platform will be, raising concerns about his lack of experience and close ties to Mr. Estrada and his allies.

Elections in the Philippines are often marred by violence, intimidation of candidates, and accusations of cheating. Mr. Rocamora says the problem is the system, which is about who has the political machinery, power, and money to win.

"And so what the poorer segments of the population will be looking for are heroes, demigods, people they can pin their hopes on as individuals rather than looking for solutions from these people," said Mr. Rocamora.

Whoever wins the presidency will have plenty to do. The local currency is at an all-time low, violent crime is rampant, and the government is trying to hold peace talks with several rebel groups.

The other candidates running for president are former Senator Raul Roco, former national police chief Panfilo Lacson, Christian evangelist Eddie Villanueva, and businessman Eddie Gil.