Ramos allows Filipinos to see light at the end of the tunnel: The President is fighting to end a power crisis, and save his country, writes Raymond Whitaker, Asia Editor

PRESIDENT Fidel Ramos has given the Philippines the present it wanted most - a Christmas without 'brown-outs'. In a country notorious for power shortages, ful filment of the President's pledge to ensure uninterrupted electricity supplies by the festive season helps to explain why his approval ratings are more than 60 per cent.

The power crisis was one of the worst problems inherited by Mr Ramos when he took office in mid-1992, and it remains unsolved. Many suspect that 'brown-outs' - the dimming of lights caused by inadequate supplies - have been avoided this month only by running the country's antiquated electricity plants flat out and that shortages will resume once the weather gets hotter. A more permanent solution is unlikely for at least another 18 months, when two new 350- megawatt power stations are due to come on stream.

But the President has at least given Filipinos something else to talk about. Until recently the inability of the power grid to meet more than two-thirds of demand was the leading topic of daily conversation: even taxi-drivers bandied about terms such as 'base-load capacity' and newspapers carried a daily 'power update', giving details of the day's cuts.

As the lights flickered, air-conditioners clattered to a halt and sweatshop owners laid off machinists because the business was not profitable enough to warrant buying a generator, Filipinos were daily reminded of the failures of their leaders. A 600-megawatt nuclear power station built during the days of Ferdinand Marcos lies idle, mothballed by his successor, Corazon Aquino, because of alleged flaws in its construction and its siting in an earthquake zone. This year the Philippines lost a court battle against Westinghouse, the station's American builders, over claims that bribes had been paid to local officials; the wrangling continues over other compensation claims.

During her six years in office, Mrs Aquino did not add a single watt of generating capacity, leaving the Philippines incapable of matching the economic boom being enjoyed by its South-East Asian neighbours. Mr Ramos has put in some 850 megawatts, but the gap continues to widen. Thanks to economic stagnation and annual population growth of 2.5 per cent, real incomes in the Philippines have remained the same as they were in the 1960s. A huge burden of foreign debt - some dollars 30bn (pounds 20bn) - remains from the Marcos years. The International Monetary Fund, which was about to issue a clean bill of health to the country, is complaining about a mounting government deficit.

In Asia the Philippines appears the odd one out in more ways than just the economic. It is the continent's only Christian nation, the only former Spanish possession in Asia and the only country anywhere to have been colonised by the United States. Its neighbours often accuse it of a Latin attitude to work and an addiction to American-style democracy at the expense of efficiency. But the popularity of the uncharismatic Mr Ramos, a former army general and a Protestant in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, is taken by some as a sign that Filipinos have had enough political flamboyance. Economic growth of 2 per cent this year is paltry by regional standards, but it is the first since the 1980s.

Despite high crime rates and recent bombings and kidnappings in the southern island of Mindanao, where religious tensions have risen between Christians and Muslims, there is more political stability in the Philippines than for nearly a decade. The steam has gone out of the country's two insurgencies, involving Communists and Muslim separatists respectively, and there is no threat of a coup from military dissidents. Unlike his predecessor, President Ramos has been able to travel ceaselessly, both abroad and within the Philippines. Obstructiveness remains among legislators and the judiciary, but not to the extent of paralysis, as there was under Mrs Aquino.

Again unlike his predecessor, Mr Ramos was confident enough to allow the Marcos clan to bring back the former dictator's body from Hawaii, where he died in exile in 1989, though it was not allowed to return to the capital for fear of stirring up old passions. Although Marcos remains in a glass case in his former northern stronghold of Ilocos Norte, awaiting the state funeral in Manila the family swears will one day be his, most of the nation feels he is

history.

And Mr Ramos intends to see in 1994 with a bang. Huge official fireworks displays have been organised in Manila tonight to discourage its citizens from letting off home-made pyrotechnics, which last year killed at least 10 people. The President may not be able to cure Filipinos of their traditional insouciance, but he is trying.

(Photograph omitted)

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