Filipinos look for ray of hope in a violent poll

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Asia's most open and free elections is taking place today as Filipinos go to the polls to elect a president, legislators and local officials. And it must be the only election in the world that has a cigarette company sponsoring the effort to keep it clean.

In most countries the word clean is not usually associated with smoking but here in the Philippines, Hope, "the luxury cigarette", is also sponsoring Project Hope - which stands for Honest, Orderly and Peaceful Elections.

Given the chequered history of Philippines elections, Hope has a big job on its hands. The banks are already reporting an acute shortage of 50 peso (pounds 1) and 100 peso banknotes, which happen to be the denominations most commonly used to pay for votes. Reports have also started to flow in about pre-written ballot papers.

The election death toll is rising, with more than 30 people killed in election-related violence so far. An example of how blase the country's media is towards such deaths concerned an unidentified man who joined a crowd at the final rally for the presidential candidate Alfredo Lim - a strong supporter of capital punishment. At the rally he climbed a tree, lowered a rope and then hung himself. "This incident", reported The Philippine Star newspaper, "was not enough to disrupt the political meeting."

The victor in the presidential race will probably be the current Vice- President Joseph "Erap" Estrada. This candidate a former movie idol, has little to say about his policies but is immensely popular among the poor who make up most of the population. Yesterday, he predicted that he would get one-third of the vote, which may be enough as Fidel Ramos won the presidential poll six years ago with only 24 per cent.

Mr Estrada's main rival among the 10 other candidates is Jose de Venecia, an old-fashioned machine politician who has been backed by President Ramos. At the weekend, Mr de Venecia was predicting "the biggest upset in Philippine political history". Few share his confidence. Black propaganda is also rife. One mass circulation tabloid newspaper splashed on the news yesterday that Mr Estrada had had a stroke and was recommending his supporters to back Mr Lim. A tired but robust Mr Estrada appeared before the press to rebut the report.

In races for the senate and congress the Philippines is seeing a triumphal return of the old political clans who traditionally controlled fiefdoms around the country. The Marcos clan has a stronghold in the province of Ilocos Norte that has not been weakened much in spite of the fall from power of the autocratic Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. His widow, Imelda, who has cut an increasingly absurd figure, has finally withdrawn from the presidential race and given her backing to Mr Estrada.

The rumours are that she is hoping for a presidential pardon following her conviction on a number of embezzlement charges. The late president's son Bong Bong and daughter Imee are still in the race for the governorship of the province and a congressional seat.

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