Aquino Pulls Ahead in Philippine Presidential Race

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Senatorial candidates join Filipino presidential candidate Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III during a May 2, 2010, rally in Quezon City, the Philippines

With a week to go before the May 10 general election in the Philippines, presidential front runner Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III is pulling sharply ahead of his nearest rival, according to public-opinion surveys released this week by the country's two main pollsters. In a Pulse Asia poll, Aquino, the son of popular former President Corazon Aquino, held a 19-point lead over his nearest rival, Manuel "Manny" Villar, a real estate tycoon from an underprivileged background. Thirty-nine percent of respondents supported Aquino. A Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll showed Aquino was 12 points ahead of Villar; the two were almost neck and neck in a January SWS poll.

Deposed former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada placed third in the SWS poll and tied with Villar in Pulse Asia's. Estrada, a former screen idol who was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption in 2007 and pardoned by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is still popular with the masses, though not to the degree of his 1998 landslide election win.

The top three are trailed by six other presidential candidates, including the current administration party's bet, Gilberto Teodoro, a well-regarded former national-defense chief. His association with the unpopular Arroyo seems to have hurt his chances. Just under 5% of respondents in Pulse Asia's poll were undecided. Noted veteran political commentator Amando Doronila, writing in the April 30 Philippine Daily Inquirer: "Time is not on Villar's side in his almost desperate effort to erase Aquino's lead."

Even for a country used to rowdy elections, the contest for the presidency has been spattered with mudslinging and dirty tricks. Aquino had to fend off allegations that he was mentally unfit to lead the country after two psychiatrists' reports — both forgeries — were slipped to the local media. One claimed the 50-year-old Senator sought medical help for depression in 1992 and that he was a solitary drinker and user of illegal drugs as a teenager. The country's largest television news network has disclosed that it received the report from sources in Villar's Nacionalista Party. While Aquino was barnstorming in Isabela province last week, text messages were reportedly circulated there claiming he had suffered an epileptic attack.

Villar's opponents, meanwhile, have been scouring records looking for evidence that his upbringing was not as poor as suggested in his campaign advertisements, in order to discredit his poor-boy-made-good story. (A Villar election song begins, "Have you ever had to swim in a river of garbage?") In his campaign's bid to convince the skeptics, Villar's 86-year-old wheelchair-bound mother was presented to reporters this week. She tearfully related that the family was "really poor" when her son was growing up and had struggled financially to run a fish stall. A whispering campaign has tried to persuade voters that Villar is being secretly supported by the unpopular Arroyo, which some observers believe has slowed his momentum in the pre-election polls.

May 10 will be the first nationwide test of an automated vote counter to replace a manual tally that typically takes weeks to complete. The initiative, which has been years in the making, is aimed at helping cleanse the country's cheating-tainted elections by delivering fast and accurate results. Some 82,000 precinct-count optical-scan (PCOS) machines are set to be dispatched to regions to tally the hand-marked ballots of more than 50 million registered voters, who will be voting for 50,000 candidates running for nearly 18,000 posts in local and national government, including nearly 300 congressional seats.

Preparations for the automated polling have attracted nearly as much interest as the presidential race itself. Filipinos desperately want a credible election — especially after the political turmoil unleashed by allegations in 2005 that vote-rigging enabled Arroyo to win the last general election. Even so, the $160 million project, which is being handled by Smartmatic, a Venezuelan-founded company, along with a Philippine partner, has been a tough sell. Election-monitoring groups have raised concerns about practically every aspect of the process. When a delegation from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute met with some of these groups in Manila in March, it found a "high degree of anxiety and lack of confidence" in the automated system. "Certainly, a project of this scale would be a complicated exercise even for a developed country like the U.S. to pull off," says Pete Troilo, a Manila-based business-risk consultant at Pacific Strategies and Assessments. Computer experts worry the system could be vulnerable to hacking. (Automated cheating has become part of the election lexicon.) The deactivation of a device on the PCOS machines to read ultraviolet security marks on the ballots was a particular point of concern after glitches were uncovered in laboratory tests.

In newspaper advertisements last week, six presidential candidates — including Aquino and Estrada but not Villar — along with business and IT groups and Filipino members of the Roman Catholic Church, called on the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to conduct a parallel manual vote count for the presidency and vice presidency to "guarantee the credibility" of May 10's polls. Comelec rejected the proposal. But a random audit of ballots cast in selected precincts will be checked against automated results.

In public forums and television appearances, Comelec and Smartmatic officials have tried to respond to the nation's doubts. But public trust in the commission, a body under the constitution with a checkered reputation, is not high. Says Earl Parreno, an analyst with the Institute for Political and Economic Reform, a local think tank: "If you look at it objectively, the Comelec is doing its best to hold a credible election. But in this political atmosphere, people are too easily persuaded by emotional issues."

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez points out that even if there is a systems breakdown — a scenario he calls "inconceivable" — there is still a paper trail of every vote cast. All the same, there are fears that snafus of one kind or another could cause automated voting to fail in some precincts and result in delays in proclaiming results. Says Troilo: "This is a new and unfamiliar voting system that opens up major opportunities for protest" from losing candidates. On the other hand, he adds, a largely successful automated-polling exercise would win much needed plaudits for the country: "The Philippines has a chance to come out of this shining."