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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
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)

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Update No: 074 - (30/04/10)


The merry month of May
Thailand is in crisis and is once again hogging the world headlines when it comes to news of Southeast Asia. Filipino politicians must be heaving a collective sigh of relief because it has taken the focus of international media away from the shenanigans in the Philippines for a while. Besides which, just how many times can you report on a regime in terminal decay and still find something interesting to say?

Or is it? Filipino President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the president nobody really wanted is into the twilight of her presidency but you do not need to read the teacups to realize that she is planning to be around for a long-time yet. Indeed in all the pre-election manoeuvring that is taking place, much of it seems to centre around a president who far from making a graceful exit appears rather to be simply regrouping.

May 10 is the day that the Philippines goes to the polls to elect a new president, a new vice president and a plethora of other officials. More than fifty million voters—16.5 percent more than in 2004—spread across 76,300 precincts will choose from over 85,000 candidates who are seeking 17,943 national and local posts. By any yardstick that is an enormous undertaking to manage and this time around the entire exercise will be automated for the first time. Knowing the poor track record of the poll oversight body, COMELEC, many observers doubt that the computerized vote tallying will be either credible or accurate.

The presidential race is now dominated by three candidates of which Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of the late president Corazon Aquino is the front runner and, if recent polls are to be believed, is increasing an already commanding lead. In second place is property tycoon, Manuel “Manny” Villar, while running third is former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada who says he is running for no other reason than he wants to be president again. Knowing the mentality of the man, it is probably as good a reason as any, after all, his time guarding the till was cut short. Others believe he may have ‘dealt with the devil’ and is running as the administration’s secret weapon—to take the votes of the poor away from Noynoy. The question is a valid one but the answer is that we don’t know. In this toxic environment anything is possible.

Running well behind the front-runners is the administration’s official candidate Gilberto Tedoro Jr. Tedoro was only ever given an outside chance and news that the Arroyo family is actually secretly bankrolling the campaign of Villar in what has now become popularly known as the Villarroyo candidacy has further muddied the waters—if that were possible. The undercurrent of opinion is that since elections have to be held, President Arroyo will do whatever she can to ensure that Aquino does not get the presidency, so that whoever succeeds her will guarantee her safety from litigation over her failings.

But what if he does win? With Mrs Arroyo and many of her family standing for Congress and with the institutions of governance so weakened over the term of her presidency, a power struggle between Congress and the Administration looks increasingly inevitable in that instance. Not content to be an elder statesperson, Arroyo is standing for a seat in Congress where it is believed she wants first the speakership and after that the prime ministership if she can engineer a switch to parliamentary government. Giving up her power is farthest from her mind. As one respected newspaper put it in its editorial “For Ms Arroyo, the speakership represents the one thing she craves most, which is power, and the one thing she needs most, which is impunity. She will do anything to get it.”

The watchword is “impunity.” As the election heads into the home strait, President Arroyo is remaining true to form. Despite her professions of pious faith, meant to ensure the Catholic hierarchy remains on her side (although in some quarters even that is now in doubt), consider some of the other irregularities that have surfaced in the past month.

Firstly, the newly appointed Secretary of Justice, no less than her former election lawyer, Alberto Agra, has cleared Governor Zaldy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and acting Maguindanao Vice Governor Akmad Ampatuan of murder charges in the massacre of 57 people from a rival political faction late last year. This has been described in the press as President Arroyo’s “debt service” (utang na loob) to the Ampatuan family for their past loyalty and for delivering the vote to Arroyo in the 2004 election. The actions of Secretary Agra have been universally condemned in the local press and Mrs. Arroyo herself has disingenuously called for a review of his decision, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that the Ampatuans will ever stand trial; instead some lower-level flunkies will be made scapegoats for the massacre. Given the transactional nature of this presidency, has a further deal been struck to ensure that areas of Mindanao under the control of the Ampatuan clan deliver votes this time around in accordance with the wishes of the Arroyos? The question is being asked.

Secondly, the senior Amapatuan, despite being held in detention, was given the courtesy of holding a press conference from his cell. The press conference he called had nothing to do with his case; rather it was called to announce the support of the Ampatuans for the Noynoy campaign. Now, given that all of this had to be cleared with Malacañang Palace, the only logical explanation for this is that by associating himself with the Aquino campaign, Aquino would be tarnished in the process. If that was the plan, then it appears to have backfired.

Despite ongoing concern at the lack of transparency in the automated vote counting system and continued questions over the accuracy of the machines being used, COMELEC, has again dismissed calls for a parallel manual count to match the computerized tallying claiming this is unnecessary. Since no politician ever loses an election in the Philippines, the stage is being set for some massive disputes to arise. Furthermore the poll body has once again been mired in scandal with new revelations of further rigged contract bidding.

Finally, or at least finally for the purpose of this essay, came the news that the seats reserved in the Philippine lower house for marginalized constituents—the so-called “party list” seats—have been hijacked by the political elite. At least 15 party-list groups have been linked to people close to the Arroyo administration thereby ensuring that instead of standing for the poor and dispossessed as was the intention when the present Constitution was framed, these votes in Congress will form part of the Arroyo bloc. Under President Arroyo’s watch, the marginalized have become marginalized even further.

All of these tales (and they are only the tip of the iceberg) merely reinforce the “culture of impunity” which has pervaded the later years of the Arroyo government, just as it did during the Marcos years. As one respected commentator wrote “the rich grab what they want and the poor grant what they must. Thus abuses proliferate, both by state and by insurgents. “

Or as another commentator put it:

“Many of us are stunned by Ms Arroyo's cavalier attitude toward institutions. Unlike ordinary mortals, she seems simply not awed by them. Clearly, her staying power as a politician resides in this - that she looks at the law not as a moral guide but merely as a tool of politics. ... That her weapons of choice, ultimately, are coercion and remuneration. Not since Marcos has the nation seen a politician quite like her.

In the past it has taken up to 60 days to tally the nationwide vote during which time the entire country was in a surrealistic twilight state. This time a result is expected within 48 hours. It may not be the result expected but it will be a result. . If we can try and find anything positive in all of this it is that the suspense should be short-lived. Within the week following the election, we will know whether order and calm will prevail or whether Thailand will start to look like a Sunday School picnic compared to the mayhem that could be unleashed in the Philippines.

The irresistible force appears to be about to meet the immovable object. 

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