Rogues and ruffians bid to lead Filipinos

Stephen Vines reports as voters face an uphill struggle to choose a president
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PICKING their way through a crowded field of mad, bad and frankly unlikely candidates, Filipino voters are hardly spoiled for choice in the forthcoming presidential election.

They may well opt for a hard-drinking, womanising gambler, or possibly a candidate often portrayed as barmy. There's also a "Dirty Harry-type" police chief, a former television reader who describes herself as "Princess Diana incarnate", and, as ever, the world's most famous shoe hoarder, Imelda Marcos.

The field is so devoid of candidates showing the slightest interest in policy or integrity that the big money has been reluctantly dumped on Jose de Venecia, the almost aggressively uninspiring Speaker of the House of Representatives and choice of the outgoing President, Fidel Ramos. Mr de Venecia is the epitome of the old-style wheeler dealer politician and fixer.

But, and this is important, he is not a well-known drunk, nor would he be likely to turn up at official functions with a mistress.

The same cannot be said for the front runner in the campaign, Joseph "Erap" Estrada. He is bemused by President Bill Clinton's "Zippergate" problems, advising him to brazen it out. This is certainly what Erap would do. He makes little secret of his roving eye and his mistresses. Neither is he much bothered if everyone knows about his love of gambling and whisky.

He has chosen Ronald Reagan as a role model, but the resemblance does not appear to extend much beyond the fact that both are former actors. Although he is vice-president, he is barely on speaking terms with President Ramos. The President frets that Mr Estrada cannot be trusted to turn up at meetings on time or to pay the slightest attention once he gets there.

However, an adoring public seems to be little bothered with the concerns of Mr Ramos. They still see Mr Estrada as the movie idol who, with guns blazing, would burst onto the silver screen fighting for the downtrodden against the rich and powerful. His nickname, Erap, is a play on words with the Tagalog word, pare, meaning friend or buddy. The wide-girthed Erap, with his slicked-back hair, is everyone's buddy.

Although Erap is ahead in the polls, the campaign proper has only just begun, and voting does not take place until 11 May. This gives Mr de Venecia time to mobilise his mighty party machine, collect sacks of money from the big tycoons in the Makarti business district and hit the road with his attractive running mate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who spends a great deal of time on the campaign trail belting out popular songs with her husband.

Her father was a President but, perhaps, an equally strong claim to fame comes from being a classmate of President Clinton, who, so she says, often walked her home.

In the last presidential election, Fidel Ramos was given a strong run for his money by Miriam Defensor-Santiago. She is not known for her reticence. Opponents can expect to be described as "fungus faced", at best, and "crooks", at worst.

Her enemies, a large and varied group, cast doubt on her sanity but, as she mounts the campaign platform to the strains of the "Star Wars" theme, she woos the crowds with declarations of the war she has declared on vested interests.

Less ebullient is Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, like Fidel Ramos, once a close associate of the deposed autocrat Ferdinand Marcos, who rapidly became a hero of the People's Power revolution once it was clear that Marcos was on the way out. Now aged 74, he cannot really sing or dance but he does have a great deal of money and some very influential friends. Why the senator is standing is something of a mystery, but he hates to feel left out.

That, presumably, is why Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Ferdinand, has thrown her hat into the ring, yet again.

The courts are ready to put her in jail for plundering the nation's coffers but the legal system in the Philippines works in mysterious ways so she is free to take her shoe collection around the country, pausing at regular intervals to give an emotional rending of "Dahil Sa Iyo", meaning: "because of you".

Amando Doronila, one of the Philippines' best-known political commentators, says, "never has been there been an election so bankrupt of political ideas and so dominated by personalities".

Exactly the same was said about the last presidential election yet it yielded the administration of Fidel Ramos who is widely regarded to have been not a bad president.