Aquino Son One to Watch in Philippine Elections

The New York Times
Published: May 9, 2010

MANILA — Senator Benigno S. Aquino III, the son of the Philippines’ two democracy icons, was favored to win in the presidential election Monday, as he and his main rivals wrapped up their campaigns over the weekend amid worries of widespread violence, cheating and the reliability of a new automated voting system.
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Senator Benigno S. Aquino III attended a private mass with his family on the eve of Monday’s elections in Tarlac province, in the northern Philippines.

On the eve of the election, an explosion in a southern Philippine village killed at least one person, critically wounded three and injured about a dozen others, residents and an official of an election watchdog said Sunday night.

The victims had just finished their evening prayers inside a mosque when somebody lobbed what may have been a grenade, according to Arden Andong, a resident who spoke by telephone from his home in Pikit town, North Cotabato, about 300 meters from the mosque.

Earlier Sunday, five people were killed in separate election-related incidents in two other provinces of the Philippines.

Fearing escalating violence, the Commission on Elections announced that it was placing nine areas in the country under its direct control, including sections of Mindanao Island in the south. Just days after raising the possibility of postponing the elections because of a software flaw in the new voting system, election officials scrambled to replace memory cards in more than 76,000 electronic machines nationwide.

The commission anticipated delays in distributing new cards to some remote areas, affecting as many as 3.3 million voters of a registered total of 50 million, said James Jimenez, a spokesman for the commission.

But election results were still expected to be released on time, within 48 hours after the polls close, he said.

The Monday elections — in which 18,000 local, regional and national positions also are being contested — amount to a critical test of the Philippines’ fragile democracy. Once an inspiration to emerging democracies for its “people power” overthrow of the American-backed autocrat, Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Philippines has suffered from poor governance in the past decade.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who cannot run because of term limits, took over the presidency nine years ago after popular unrest toppled the democratically elected Joseph Estrada. The deeply unpopular Ms. Arroyo, whose administration has been marked by accusations of widespread corruption, is believed by some critics to have won re-election in 2004 because of massive vote-rigging in the province of Maguindanao, in Mindanao, where 57 people were massacred late last year in the country’s single worst act of political violence.

Disillusion with Ms. Arroyo has helped Mr. Aquino, 50, the son of Benigno S. Aquino Jr., Mr. Marcos’s main rival, and Corazon C. Aquino, who became president in 1986 through her “people power” movement. The younger Mr. Aquino, who said he had never before considered running for the presidency, has benefited from an outpouring of sympathy following his mother’s death last year.

“We believe we have communicated our message: that we are different from those that currently run the country,” Mr. Aquino said in one of his last campaign events, according to the Business Mirror newspaper.

Because of his family ties and a personal reputation for probity, Mr. Aquino has overcome a lackluster legislative career to maintain his lead in surveys conducted by the country’s main polling agencies. Mr. Aquino has inherited his parents’ mostly middle-class supporters as his two main rivals appeared to split the support of lower-income voters.

Manuel Villar, 60, a senator who had been considered the favorite before Mr. Aquino’s unexpected candidacy, wound down his campaign in Tondo, a poor Manila neighborhood where he grew up. Despite a compelling personal narrative — Mr. Villar became a billionaire in real estate and Senate president in a country controlled by an oligarchy of powerful families — he was unable to shake off accusations that he had used his political position to benefit his business.

“I see that the people running our country are the old prominent families,” Mr. Villar said, according to the Philippine Star newspaper. “They want to be the only ones to run the country. They want to just pass this on among themselves.”

Also running is Mr. Estrada, 73, the former president who is ranked second or third depending on the polls. Mr. Estrada, who was pardoned for plunder by Ms. Arroyo, also ended his campaign in Tondo on a populist note.

The Philippines has adopted the new automated system to prevent the kind of fraud that has marred previous elections, but glitches could fuel suspicions that ballots are still being manipulated.

The biggest trouble spot is Mindanao, home to a long-running Muslim insurgency. In 2004, Ms. Arroyo is believed to have won a tight race because of widespread fraud in Mindanao’s province of Maguindanao, which has long been in the grip of the Ampatuans, a violent clan closely allied with Ms. Arroyo.

The Ampatuans are accused of being behind the massacre last November of 57 political rivals and journalists.

Several members of the clan have been charged in the killings. But the case has moved slowly through the courts because of because of the Arroyo government’s apparent lack of interest in putting the Ampatuans on trial.

In Maguindanao, election officials distributed ballots and machines on Sunday escorted by dozens of soldiers in trucks and tanks.

In the town of Datu Unsay, in a scene that was likely to be repeated in many corners of the country, more than a hundred men were milling around a public market and bus terminal despite the lack of business Sunday. The men were waiting for politicians to drop by with gifts of cash.

“It’s a normal practice in Maguindanao and in the other provinces here,” said the Rev. Jonathan Domingo, a Roman Catholic priest who is the coordinator of an election monitoring group called Bantay Halalan.

Around this time, “it is usually very calm. That is because the candidates are carrying out massive vote buying, paying voters from 300 pesos upward,” Father Domingo said. The payment is the equivalent of $6.50.

“Because life is difficult, voters tend to sell their votes to the highest bidder, especially in Maguindanao.”

Norimitsu Onishi reported from Manila, and Carlos H. Conde from Maguindanao and Cotabato City.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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