Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Underachieving Arroyo takes the lead ahead of Philippine poll

No matter who wins on Monday, there will be no easy solutions to the economic, security and social problems that continue to plague the archipelago nation

By John O'Callaghan  /  REUTERS , MANILA

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is ascendant going into Monday's elections but old millstones of debt, graft, poverty and division await her, or any other leader, from the first day in office.

Financial markets have taken heart from four surveys showing Arroyo pushing past macho film star and political novice Fernando Poe, Jr (FPJ) in the home stretch of the 90-day campaign.

While the "familiarity factor" is Arroyo's main attraction, investors will quickly refocus on the health of debt levels, tax collection, exports and the peso, said Mike Moran, regional economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong.

"Her track record on the economic side over the past few years hasn't been particularly good," he said. "What we need is just a steady ship for two, maybe three, years and then some of the problems in terms of the debt will be far easier to resolve."

Arroyo, an economist, has put a tiny dent in entrenched corruption, kept the budget deficit in check and resumed talks about peace with Muslim and communist rebels.

But the government borrows frequently to make payments on debt of US$61 billion to keep itself running, with little left to narrow vast regional and social disparities. Security, graft and legal uncertainties remain as major concerns for investors.

PLENTY OF PROBLEMS

"I don't think it makes any difference whether you elect Gloria or you elect FPJ," said Scott Harrison, managing director of Manila-based risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments and a former official at the CIA.

"Both of them will not be able to solve the problems of the Philippines. They don't have the resources," he said.

Beyond being short of money, any leader must somehow align the differing interests of a clan-based elite, 30 million people in dire poverty, the Roman Catholic church, a Muslim minority and a military that has spawned nine coup attempts in 18 years.

Arroyo softened her image as determined but distant with the singing and dancing that is the lifeblood of politics here.

She relied mainly on the best bits of her record and state machinery as Poe squandered a large lead by leaning on his film roles as a gun-toting hero to the underdog and giving only rudimentary details of his vision for 82 million Filipinos.

If the opinion polls are accurate, Arroyo will beat Poe narrowly and three other challengers handily.

But to push her reforms, or even get this year's stalled budget passed, her allies must win enough of the 17,000 congressional, provincial and local seats also up for grabs on Monday.

Despite an anti-fraud pact by parties, stuffed ballot boxes, bribed voters, violence and lawsuits are inevitable.

The count from thousands of islands may also take weeks to confirm the winners.

One Asian diplomat said he hoped for fair, peaceful elections and "a stable and clean government with more technocrats and fewer politicians in the Cabinet."

"Do pigs fly?" he said.

"That's why I have my concerns," he added.

MORE ENEMIES

Regardless of her mandate, Arroyo also faces hostility from millions of poor voters who see her as a usurper who rose from vice president when the elite engineered the overthrow of their man, popular former actor Joseph Estrada, in January 2001.

Estrada, Poe's long-time drinking buddy, will remain a potent force well after the election, even from his detention cell as he stands trial on charges of economic plunder.

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