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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 80,574 77,076 71,400 43
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,080 1,020 1,050 135
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on The Philippines



Update No: 072 - (26/02/10)

Business as usual
As of writing this, it is less than three months to the next round of elections in the Philippines. On May 10, more than fifty million voters spread across 75,000 precincts will go to the polls. Not only will they elect a new president and vice president of the country, each for a term of six years; also at stake are 12 senatorial positions, 287 congressional representatives, 80 provincial governors and vice governors as well as a plethora of local representatives. In total there are 17,999 elected positions to be filled on 10 May requiring 1,631 unique ballots. Each ballot paper will measure an astonishing 21.6 cm by 63.5 cm (8.5” x 25”).

For the first time in the history of Philippine elections, voting will be automated. More than 80,000 optical scanning machines have been purchased at a total cost of PhP7.2 billion (£100 million approx.) In previous elections it has taken one or two days for manual counting to be done at the local level and up to 40 days for the poll tally to be aggregated nationally. Often - usually, this had led to claims of vote tampering, theft of ballot boxes and altering of the certificates of canvass. Automation is supposed to change that – or will it?

Experienced poll watchers from civil society groups are concerned at the opaqueness of the entire process. Their preference was for manual counting at the local level, as had been done previously and which would have ensured oversight of the count by the different political parties as well as independent observers and then electronic transmission and counting of the precinct outcomes. This would have ensured transparency in that the contents of the ballot boxes would be scrutinized by individuals and the outcome agreed, before transmittal. As it is, the entire process relies on the validity of the optical scanning. With such huge ballot papers and an electorate that is largely unsophisticated, Murphy’s Law will likely have a field day.

Testing of the voting equipment so far has left many unanswered questions and has not gone entirely smoothly. Indeed there are doubts as to whether the machines will be in place in time. In early testing, the optical scanners produced a 10 per cent margin of error – an unacceptable margin by any count.

The government, through the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has been at pains to reassure voters that come polling day, all will be well. The problem is that very few people trust the government and with good reason. In recent days, COMELEC has made some strange decisions indeed. Not only did it allow former President Estrada to run – in clear contravention of the Constitution, the electoral oversight body has removed from office the only three provincial governors who ran in 2007 on reform platforms and who stood against entrenched political interests. These include Grace Padaca of Isabela, Joselito Mendoza of Bulacan and Ed Panlilio, the former Catholic priest who won in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s home province of Pampanga. Each of them has been replaced by a “trapo” politician who can be relied upon to do whatever it takes to ensure continuation of the status quo. President Arroyo will be standing for a congressional seat in Pampanga and many people are asking whether there is a political agenda behind the removal of Panlilo, Padaca and Mendoza.

These three provinces are now back in the hands of their entrenched political overlords; other provinces controlled by opposition parties have complained that their funding from the national government has dried up while those in power in friendly provinces (which is most of them) are awash with funds. Yes, under the nine years of the Arroyo watch, being a reformer is a dangerous business. There have been countless examples where those who have exposed corruption have lost their jobs and in some cases, even their lives. Only this past month (February 6) has the military rounded up 43 health workers attending a medical seminar on suspicion of being terrorists plotting destabilization. The military elite has thumbed its collective nose at a writ of habeas corpus from the Supreme Court. The military is now in contempt of court, but that does not seem to bother those in power.

Indeed the nine years of President Arroyo have seen the systematic erosion of the checks and balances of government – tenuous as they were in the first place. Arroyo was supposed to have been an interim president and when she replaced Estrada in 2001, there were high hopes that she would return stability to the Philippines. But it was not to be. By 2004, when she backtracked on her commitment not to stand for election and won in a vote that was widely believed to have been rigged, the rot had truly set in. But it was only following the mass resignation of senior government officials including eight cabinet members on Friday 8 July 2005, that did the pretence of ‘doing right by the country’ finally drop and expose Arroyo as the power hungry menace that she was to become.

Desperate to survive at any cost and denied a popular mandate, she allied herself with the ultra-right wing of the Roman Catholic Church and the military elite and embraced them as her power base. The hawks had won the day and the doves had been consigned to oblivion. Since those momentous moments of July 2005 when the nation again teetered on the brink, government has become ever more capricious and tyrannical.

So what really is the legacy of President Arroyo after nine years at the helm of her country. Despite oversighting a period of record growth for much of the period, her achievements are miniscule. In 2000 there were 76 million Filipinos; today that number has increased to 93 million thanks to the absence of effective birth control measures. This fact alone is a major contributor to the failure to make meaningful inroads into the endemic poverty that affects more than 40 per cent of the population. Yes, GDP has grown but growth has been skewed; the rich have been getting richer and the poor, poorer. The middle class continues to shrink. Household incomes – in terms of purchasing power – have been shrinking too. A recent ADB study concluded that despite the continued rise in remittance earnings from overseas, most of the remittance income received by families does not contribute to capital accumulation but rather goes towards putting food on the table.

One of the most frightening revelations of the recent survey data, is the finding that the per capita household spending on food over the past decade remains little changed, despite inflation. For those families without access to remittances from overseas, food substitution is the order of the day. Rice and viands are being substituted with grasses, sugar and salt. Needless to say, malnutrition is a major and growing problem.

Reporting the facts has become dangerous in itself; local analysts have to tread carefully and many have even paid with their lives for exposing the facts. Others, like this writer, have had to flee the country after receiving death threats.

And the elite of the country appears oblivious to it all. Rapid population growth is not a problem; with populations ageing throughout the western world, the Philippines is the world’s baby factory. Creating more and better jobs at home is not necessary since to do so would deprive the world of low-cost workers. Yet overseas work is becoming increasingly hard to find and while official data is sketchy, anecdotal evidence suggests that in many places skilled work overseas is being replaced with lower-paid unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Problems of maltreatment are widespread especially in countries such as Korea, and in the Middle East, where the rights of temporary migrant workers are heavily circumscribed.

Of the various contenders for the top job that becomes vacant on 30 June, there are four serious candidates. Noynoy Aquino, scion of another rich and powerful family (and son of former President Cory Aquino who died last year) has promised a reform agenda and fundamental change if elected. His chief rival, self-made billionaire, Manny Villar has promised to repeat his own rags-to-riches story for the Filipino Everyman, Estrada is once again running ‘to thank the poor for their loyalty to him’ (or so he says) and the contender for the ruling party, Teodoro, vows to fight for the rule of law.

Yes, right. Haven’t we heard all of that before? Are these not much the same as the promises made by Mrs. Arroyo when thrust into the presidency in 2001. Filipino politicians are masters of the spin and adept at saying one thing, while doing exactly the opposite.

And this time around there is another spanner to throw into the works. Mrs. Arroyo will not step aside from politics, but seems hell bent on retaining what power she can through a position in the legislature - which she seems all set to dominate. If she manages to scuttle the election entirely – a scenario that seems entirely plausible, given all the things that continue to cast doubt on whether an automated poll can actually come to pass – or succeed in her bid to change the Constitution and place power in the hands of an unelected Prime Minister, which seems to be her fall-back plan, then the new president will have all the powers of a palace eunuch.

Yes, change is possible – but it is an outside possibility. The most likely outcome will be business as usual and a mere shuffling of the deck chairs. And when that happens, we all know what happens to the passengers in steerage, don’t we?

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