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DECKER: Another Aquino for the Philippines

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

Philippine national elections are set for Monday, but just because a vote is scheduled doesn't mean it will actually occur. The Southeast Asian nation is one of those places where talk about voting usually is preceded by the sad qualifier, "if the election happens. ..." This year is no different.

The latest trouble in the archipelago is a mechanical one. On Tuesday, less than a week before polls open, the Commission on Elections revealed that there were software problems in all 76,000 voting machines spread across the country's more than 7,000 islands. The race is now on to try to acquire, deliver, install and test tens of thousands of new memory cards as well as devise a backup plan to handle the 50 million voters expected on Monday. This is the Philippines' first attempt at an automated election, which was intended to curtail massive graft and fraud inherent to hand counts. The unintended consequence is a disaster in the making.

Presidential spokesman Gary Olivar warned on Wednesday that the election might have to be postponed. "If technical issues require more time and require us to delay, that is not an unreasonable judgment to make," he said. The drama makes Filipinos suspicious because the current occupant of Malacanang Presidential Palace, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has legal reasons to try to cling to power. Over 10 years in office, as corruption charges encircled the president and her family, Mrs. Arroyo tried every quasi-constitutional maneuver in the book to circumvent presidential term limits. This included flirtations with martial law and an initiative to change the structure of government from a presidential to a parliamentary system whereby she could stay in power by becoming prime minister. There's little doubt Arroyo forces would mobilize to fill any unforeseen power vacuum next week.

If the election does happen, Filipinos have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future because the likely winners have the potential to build the cleanest administration in decades. At the beginning of the week, Liberal Party standard bearers Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and Sen. Manuel "Mar" Roxas II were ahead 19 and 9 percentage points respectively for president and vice president. Voting-machine capers aside, those numbers make this election hard to steal. In healthier democracies, surveys allow room for a margin of error based on tiny methodology imperfections. In the Philippines, electoral uncertainty is more aptly identified as a "margin of corruption," which refers to the couple of percentage points estimated to be stolen each cycle. Mr. Aquino and Mr. Roxas are polling well above the margin of corruption, but so many hobbled voting machines introduce a new wild card into the picture.

The Liberal Party fielded a formidable team. Noynoy's father and namesake, opposition Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. was assassinated while trying to return from exile during the strong-arm rule of Ferdinand Marcos. His murder sparked the 1986 People Power uprising that ousted Marcos and installed the current senator's mother, Corazon "Cory" Aquino, as president. Noynoy himself was almost killed during one of the numerous coups d'etat that destabilized his mother's presidency. The August death of Mrs. Aquino, a national icon, put wind behind the sails of her son's candidacy. For his part, Mr. Roxas is the grandson and namesake of the first president of the Philippine republic after the United States granted independence in 1946.

Aside from their illustrious pedigrees, these two politicians are ahead of the competition because they both enjoy a reputation for honesty. Mr. Roxas resigned from Mrs. Arroyo's cabinet in 2003 to protest rampant corruption, joined the opposition and has been pushing for greater government transparency from the Senate since 2004. Mr. Aquino has made clean governance his central campaign theme. In a recent television ad, the candidate was shown standing at a crossroads, with a crooked road leading to the left and a straight road leading to the right. The twisted path led to a barren landscape where crooked politicians stuffed envelopes of money in their pockets, while security and prosperity awaited in the other direction. The commercial struck a chord, and Mr. Aquino has been hammering away on his promises to clean up the corridors of power and give no quarter to anyone, no matter how prominent. This is rhetoric that should make current President Arroyo very nervous.

A lot is riding on this election. On April 28, TeamAsia, a Manila-based consultancy, released a survey of executives in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Of these business leaders, "87 percent said a failure of elections would 'somewhat significantly,' 'significantly' or 'very significantly' generate a negative effect on investor and client perception of the Philippines," according to the survey. Not strangling the BPO goose is vital because the industry is the primary generator of new, high-paying jobs, which reached over 440,000 in the Philippines last year. In 2009, the sector earned more than $7 billion and is projected to top $12 billion by 2011. "The Philippines needs a period of political stability so its governing institutions can mature and the economy can grow," Michael Alan Hamlin, managing director of TeamAsia, told The Washington Times. "An election perceived to be relatively clean and a peaceful transition of power would be a good start."

There are always plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the electoral workings in Asia's oldest but most feeble democracy. But this year, there are some new signs of hope in old names, which is better than usual.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times and author of "Global Filipino" (Regnery, 2008).