Philippines: The Contest For President in 2004 Begins To Hot Up

2003

Dr Ron May

In May 2004, the Philippines will go to the polls. May 2004 may seem a long way off, but already speculation is rife about who the next president might be.

Under the People Power Constitution of 1987, a president can have only a single six-year term. President Macapagal-Arroyo, however, came to office in 2001 not through an election but, as vice president, by acceding to the presidency vacated by Joseph Estrada following impeachment proceedings and popular pressure on him to resign. She is thus entitled to contest for a full six-year term in 2004. In December 2002, however, President Macapagal-Arroyo announced that she would not stand in 2004, preferring instead to devote her remaining months to fulfilling her program of healing the nation’s wounds, cleaning up the electoral process, strengthening the economy, and fighting corruption. Many people hope that she will stand. In recent weeks, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Sin, has encouraged her to contest and the foreign affairs secretary, Blas Ople, has said, quite plausibly, that the international community wants her to continue in office. Improvements in her performance ratings, in the light of economic recovery and a successful visit to the US, might also encourage her to stand. If she does so, it will be as the leader of the ruling Lakas-CMD [Christian Muslim Democrats] party. If she does not stand, 75 year-old Vice President Teofisto Guingona may seek Lakas-CMD endorsement.

Another probable contestant is businessman and former diplomat Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco. Cojuangco, a former Marcos crony who still faces possible charges over the alleged misuse of coconut industry funds, stood unsuccessfully against Fidel Ramos in 1992. He heads the National People’s Coalition (NPC), the second largest group in Congress and, with Lakas-CMD, part of the ‘Rainbow Coalition’. If Macapagal-Arroyo does not contest, Cojuangco hopes to be the leading government candidate; if she does, he will stand for the opposition.

Meanwhile, in public opinion polls the leading candidates are: radio and TV news personality, Senator Noli de Castro (who headed the Senate vote in the 2001 election), former senator and Education secretary under Macapagal-Arroyo, Raul Roco, and action movie star Fernando Poe (‘FPJ’), who is said to have a wider following than even Erap Estrada in his heyday. Roco, who heads the Aksyon Demokratiko party which is aligned with Lakas-CMD, has a strong local following in Bicol and the support of women's groups.

Other significant prospective candidates are Panfilo ‘Ping’ Lacson, former police chief under Estrada (Lacson has been accused of involvement in murder, drug trafficking and kidnapping, but has some strong support), and Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan. Honasan, as a military officer and leader of the Reform Armed Forces movement (RAM) in 1986, came into prominence for his support of the People Power movement which overthrew Ferdinand Marcos, but was subsequently discredited by his involvement in several coup attempts against President Aquino before being elected to the Senate; he is supported by the Philippine Guardians Brotherhood (in effect a successor to RAM). Lacson, Honasan, de Castro and Poe are all opposition supporters. Defence Secretary and former Armed Forces chief Angelo Reyes, and Senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr, one of the brighter young political stars, are also reported as likely candidates.

In the next few months the field may narrow down, and presidential and vice presidential candidates pair off. Whatever the outcome, this cast of characters promises lively political theatre.

WATCHPOINT: It is against this background that the rebellion by rebel army officers and soldiers took place on 27 July. Reportedly, Estrada has been linked to the rebellion, and there is speculation that Honasan also lent support. What will be the political fall-out and will such developments influence Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to change her mind and contest the next Presidential elections?

 

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