No one can accuse Filipinos of not enjoying their democratic system of government. They vote in large numbers, accept piles of cash for doing so and attend rallies with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for pop concerts. This, in part, is because Philippines political rallies are pop concerts and because Filipinos just love to be around celebrities. There are even some who are keen on politics.
After more than three years of campaigning the Philippines presidential election is gushing into the home run before voters go to the polls on Monday. All the hot money, and some of it is very hot indeed, is on Vice- President Joseph Estrada romping home to victory.
Mr Estrada, more usually known as Erap, is a former movie star who meandered across the silver screen playing the little guy fighting for justice against the big, bad guys. His campaign, under the slogan "Erap for the poor", mirrors his screen persona but with slightly more drama. On a typically clammy night this week Erap made his way to a rally in the down- at-heel town of Valenzuela, just north of the capital Manila. The audience were Erap's sort of people. Mainly poor, not vastly sophisticated and eager for entertainment.
Not only are Filipinos electing a new president they are also going to the polls to fill 17,505 other local and national positions. Over 100,000 candidates are involved in this process. Local rallies give the hoi polloi a chance to mingle with the big league candidates. They provide the warm up acts. What is striking is that none of them uses notes, nor appear at a loss for words as they stomp around the stage extolling their achievements and the considerable merits of their team mates. The absence of a script may be explained by the lack of requirement to remember little policy details, because these are never mentioned. Instead the candidates pledge to "serve the people", or "stand up for the poor", or "fight corruption" and, of course, "love the Philippines".
Candidates running for the Congress or the Senate like to make a splashy entrance at these rallies and are announced with the accompaniment of their campaign theme songs. Reuben Torres has harnessed Village People's "YMCA" to his campaign, Senator "Bong" Biazon, a man of military bearing, has appropriated "Colonel Bogey" while Erap makes an entrance to "Ob- la-di-ob-la-da".
The speeches almost always begin with a long recitation of the names of the local candidates running on the ticket and a special mention for the mayor, especially if he or she happens to be in office. They know that the mayors control the vote-gathering machine and hand out both the rewards and punishments to the long list of lower-grade officials who depend on city hall for preferment.
At the Valenzuela rally the candidate everyone was waiting for was Erap. The hefty former matinee idol was clearly whacked. It was comfortably after midnight before he slowly mounted the stage.
The enthusiasm of the crowd mounted. "Erap, Erap", they chanted as he slumped into a plastic seat. Another singer was wheeled out to belt out a couple of numbers. Finally the great man rose, clutched the lectern and was transformed as he soaked up the energy of the crowd. The old stager hadn't lost it. He hunched over the lectern and gave his winsome smile made self deprecating remarks and then got into his stride. Long on promises and short on details, he made it clear that an Estrada administration will be tough on corruption, tough on crime, good to the poor and, well, better all round.
The routine goes down like a warm, comforting syrup. The bits the crowd really like are when he makes jokes about his poor English, which is not really as poor as he makes out, but mirrors their own frustration coping with the language bequeathed by the American colonialists, which remains an official language of the nation.
Erap proves that he is one of the people, sharing their difficulties in dealing with the English speaking rich and powerful but shrugging it off with a joke. The election is not supposed to be a joke but it becomes a bit more manageable when viewed as such.