Actor, gambler, womaniser - and the next Filipino leader?

WHEN President Bill Clinton arrived in the Philippines two years ago his security men spotted a large man sporting an Elvis Presley hair style lurching towards the presidential aircraft. Quick off the mark, they blocked his path. The large man was outraged, "I'm the Vice-President," he protested. Yesterday, that man declared himself the winner of the presidential poll, even though voting was still under way.

Joseph "Erap" Estrada may not look like a president or vice-president to United States security aides but he looks every bit the saviour to the poor in the Philippines, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population.

They are not bothered that he claims election victory before the votes are counted, or gets muddled by long sentences and would never have got into the mess facing President Clinton over sexual encounters with women. Their man does not hide things such as womanising. "The people like the fact that he's the only candidate who's not a hypocrite," said Ronaldo Zamora, one of Erap's key campaign managers. Erap - a nickname derived from the Filipino word for buddy - regards his love of women as an asset, indeed one of his mistresses was on the campaign trail with him.

His aides say he is now off alcohol. If true, sales of Johnnie Walker Blue Label must have slumped in the Philippines. There must also be distress in the casino industry which is reported to have lost a high-rolling client.

Will his lifestyle stop Erap winning the election? The Catholic Bishops Conference, a highly influential body, made a last-ditch attempt to thwart his chances. "Vote for persons who morally, intellectually and physically show themselves capable of inspiring the whole nation towards a hopeful future," said the bishops in a pastoral letter issued on Sunday. Their appeal was a clear cry for the people to vote for anyone but Erap. But it looks likely to fall on deaf ears.

Mr Estrada has struck a cord with the mass of the people who are struggling to make ends meet and have recently found that struggle even harder since the Asian financial crisis. Why will you vote for Erap? I have asked all sorts of people. "Erap para sa mahirap," they invariably replied, echoing the campaign slogan of "Erap for the poor".

Yesterday, in the Tondo district of Manila, which used to be notorious for the vast rubbish dump known as Smoky Mountain where most of the people lived, voters crowding into polling stations were even shunning their local hero Alfredo Lim, who is also standing for president. "Erap is for us," said one old woman.

They see Mr Estrada as the only candidate who speaks their language. His critics and the intellectuals who are appalled by the thought of an Estrada presidency say that what they really see is the matinee idol who became a politician three decades ago but left an indelible impression on the national psyche by portraying the hero of the poor on the silver screen.

The plot of these highly popular films was simple - Erap, the bulky, heavily moustached man from the streets, would be pitted against a rich and more powerful opponent, yet, in his simple way, managed to defeat the big guy.

Theresa Erercito, one of his many daughters, maintains that Mr Estrada's supporters no longer view him as a movie star. "They admire what he has done for the people," she insisted, "what he has achieved in government."

It is true that Erap became a successful mayor of San Juan, a suburb of Manila, but it is hard to point to any success he had either as a senator or as vice-president. In the senate he was best known for sleeping during its interminable meetings. As vice-president, he headed a crime-busting unit which drew a very thin line between fighting crime and behaving in an unlawful way towards suspects.

Once President Fidel Ramos pushed his deputy out of this unit he gave him nothing else to do and treated him with contempt. Erap's revenge is likely to emerge when the votes are counted and Jose de Venecia, the candidate backed by President Ramos, is spurned.

However, Philippine elections are known neither for sobriety nor certainty. Mr Estrada faces a mighty machine under Mr de Venecia's command. That machine might prove better at getting out the vote.

If it does not, stand by for a very different style of government. President Ramos, the workaholic who rises at dawn, will be replaced by Mr Estrada who is not at best in the hours of daylight and happily admits that he will leave all the bothersome details of government to a big team of advisers.

Philippine polls - any excuse for a party

HOW do you find one of the 174,374 polling stations in the Philippines? Follow the paper trail. Mounds of discarded leaflets litter the streets in front of the stations, which are festooned with flags and posters bearing candidates' names.

It looks more like a fiesta than an election day. "Elections are like feast days or Christmas," said Father Ferdinand Hernando, one of the many poll watchers trying to keep the poll clean. "It's part of the Philippine culture to make a feast out of everything, even funerals," he added with a smile.

Most polling stations are in schools where every classroom is transformed into a voting station for each sub-district. Inside voters face the arduous task of writing down the names of 30 candidates for every post, from president to city councillor. The voting booths are cardboard boxes balanced on the knees of electors. There are no printed lists of candidates on the forms.

Counting is done laboriously by tellers calling out the names on the slips one by one to a team marking them off on big lists. The `quick' count in this election will take 10 days to complete while the long count will take even more time.

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