Recognition, not politics, is the key in Philippine polls

MANILA, Reuters

After months of polarized struggle leading to Joseph Estrada’s removal from power, May elections in the Philippines are shaping up as a keenly fought battle between his supporters and those who ousted him.

But in a country where personality often plays a bigger role in politics than policies, the frontrunner for election to the Senate is a man with no experience of public office and no party affiliation.

Television broadcaster Noli de Castro has a significant lead over other contestants in the race for 13 out of 24 Senate seats up for grabs, pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) said last week.

While all the 262 House of Representatives seats and thousands of minor government posts are also up for grabs, the Senate fight is seen as crucial to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s bid to consolidate her power.

SWS, the most respected polling agency in the country, said de Castro was favored by 59 percent of its 1,500 respondents in a poll conducted in mid March. The next contestant trailed him by 13 points.

Senate seats are voted on nationally with the candidates taking places in the order of votes won.

De Castro, 52, could be your average Filipino. Of trim build and average height, he is clean-shaven and has a ready smile. But his face and rich baritone voice have become famous through appearances on national radio and television.

“TV Patrol”,”Magandang Gabi Bayan (Good Evening Nation)” and “Kabayan (Compatriot)” are top-rated news programs he has anchored for more than a decade — and have given him a platform from which to launch his political career.

“My advantage is the recall of my name and the recall of my face,” de Castro told Reuters during campaigning last week.

He spoke in snatches of conversation while visiting a crowded fish and vegetable market in the town of Novaliches, on the northern outskirts of Manila.

Hundreds of people shook his hand. Others shouted “kabayan, kabayan,” a word he has made his own and which figures prominently on his election posters.

Women ran out from behind stalls displaying piles of fish, radishes and cabbage to greet or kiss him and pose for photographs while older women called him “Noli boy.”

De Castro insists he is completely independent.

“I will remain independent because the people want me to be an independent,” de Castro said. “I don’t want any hassle with any party. I don’t have any problem about different parties, but I don’t want to ask for their help.”

The May 14 elections are key for Arroyo, as she seeks to consolidate her hold on the presidency and gain control of both houses of Congress.

Political observers say her coalition could well win a majority in the House of Representatives but the election for the Senate is less certain.

Estrada, who has insisted he is innocent of the corruption charges that led to his ouster, is fighting back to vindicate his stand that he lost office because of a conspiracy between the upper class and the powerful Catholic church.

After charges of corruption against Estrada were first made public in October, he was impeached and tried by the Senate in the most politically charged event in the Philippines since the 1986 ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

A popular revolt broke out after senators voted 11-10 with one abstention and two seats vacant to throw out key prosecution evidence.

The Supreme Court evicted Estrada and administered the oath of office to then vice-president Arroyo on January 20 as the revolt widened and the military, the police and much of the cabinet withdrew support from Estrada.

In May, elections will be held to replace 11 senators who are retiring and to fill the two vacancies. Out of those senators remaining, six voted in favor of Estrada during the impeachment trial, four voted against and one was absent.

To ensure a committed majority in the Senate, Arroyo needs at least nine of the 13 seats being contested.