Sunday, December 26, 2010

The comeback clan

Imelda Marcos

Marcos Family: Philippines' 'Comeback Clan'

AOL News, May 14, 2010 -- There may be no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. But that rule certainly doesn't apply in the Philippines.

Monday's election saw the political resurgence of the Marcos family, with the 80-year-old, shoe-loving matriarch Imelda Marcos winning a House seat, her son Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. winning a Senate seat, and her daughter Imee winning a provincial governor's seat, all from their family stronghold of Ilocos Norte, in the north of the archipelago.

Outsiders might find it odd that a family linked to allegations of massive plunder and the Philippines' notorious martial law era could remain a political force.

But commentators say it reflects a distinctly Filipino brand of clan-based, patronage politics -- and shows how far the country's democracy still has to go before it grows up.

"I don't want to underestimate the Filipino people, but I think this [election] was a chance to make the right choice, and unfortunately we still failed -- and I'm not just talking about the Marcoses," said Maria Belen Bonoan, senior program officer for the Philippines at the Asia Foundation.

She noted as well the second-place showing of a convicted plunderer, former President Joseph Estrada, in Monday's presidential race. (Estrada is now alleging fraud in the vote, the results of which are not yet official.)

"Sometimes I feel ashamed about the whole thing, but I think it's part of our progression and evolution," Bonoan said. "We democratized a long time ago, but as far as real democracy goes, people are still trying to grasp and learn."

The Marcos family was worth an estimated $35 billion in the 1970s at the peak of their power, Imelda told a British journalist in 2006. Autocrat Ferdinand Marcos -- Imelda's late husband -- announced martial law in 1972, banned free media, dissolved Congress and oversaw a repressive regime that jailed and tortured its political opponents, some of whom disappeared without a trace.

In a 2004 report, Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, ranked Ferdinand Marcos as the second largest alleged embezzler among world leaders in the past two decades with $5 billion to $10 billion in alleged graft, a spot behind Mobutu Sese Seko, the rapacious "Father of the Nation" of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

The Marcos family has been the target of some 9,000 criminal and civil suits, but no one in the family has done jail time. The suits are generally dismissed or overturned on appeal, though a few are still pending.

Imelda denies any corruption by herself or family members, telling Reuters recently that "Marcos was not a thief" and that she hoped to get back some of the $5 billion in alleged ill-gotten family assets already seized by the government.

Ferdinand Marcos' regime crumbled in 1986 after one of his most outspoken critics -- Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, father of the likely new president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III -- was shot and killed on his return to the Philippines. That assassination remains unsolved to this day. The "People Power" movement led by Ninoy's wife, Corazon Aquino, forced Marcos from office, and he and Imelda fled to the U.S.

Locals in Ilocos Norte don't seem disturbed by the Marcos family's checkered past. They gave Imelda a landslide victory -- about 80 percent of the vote -- on Monday.

The Asia Foundation's Bonoan explains that by noting that many Filipinos still base their votes on clan loyalties. She added that throughout the Philippines, vote-buying is pervasive.

Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos, and his elder sister Imee Marcos

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said that locals remain loyal to the family due to a long history of patronage.

"During Marcos' time, the whole province was pampered with so many infrastructure projects," he said. "So they managed to retain that support, even during People Power."

He said the Marcos family possessed in spades that most important of political assets: name recognition. And younger voters "have no experience of the martial law period," he said. The junior Ferdinand, "Bongbong," has charisma, to boot. "He's young, handsome and articulate," Casiple said. "If you don't know about the background of the Marcos family, you would be really attracted to him as a politician."

The comeback of the Marcos family and Aquino's likely ascent to the presidency sets the stage for a high-profile family feud over the legacy of Ferdinand Sr.'s rule.

Media reports have raised talk of a settlement with the Marcos family over a long-running effort to recover all of the family's allegedly ill-gotten gains.

Aquino has also said he will create a "truth commission" to probe his father's assassination, including possible links to Marcos, as well as other martial law-era crimes. But analysts say the probe is unlikely to get far, as many of the key figures are dead and the ones still living aren't talking.

The Marcos family has long campaigned for a military burial with full honors for Ferdinand, whose body now lies on display in a glass case in the family's mausoleum. Two presidential candidates were open to the idea. But not Noynoy Aquino. "We have so many problems from his time until now, why should we honor him? " he told reporters.

Bonoan raised a more practical concern, quipping: "What are they going to bury? It's not a real body anymore, it's wax. Everybody knows that, it's not a secret."

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Noynoy set to take power

Benigno Noynoy Aquino attends a campaign rally April 28, 2010, in Manila, the Philippines.

Aquino Victory Looks Certain in Philippines Vote

AOL News, May 11, 2010 -- Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, the son of the iconic figures of the Philippines' move to democracy, is set to take power after the nation's first automated national elections went off better than expected, albeit with widespread glitches.

The result isn't yet official, but in counting today, Aquino had 40 percent of the vote, with the trailing candidates at least 15 points behind. His mother, Corazon Aquino, was president from 1986 to 1992, after his father, Benigno, a senator and democratic activist, was assassinated in 1983.

Four of Aquino's rivals have conceded, with only former president Joseph Estrada, second in the polls, refusing to give up.

The election saw isolated cases of the violence that plagues Philippines elections, and snafus with automated voting machines. But the turnout was a high 75 percent, and the vote appears to have been a success.

Ahead of Monday's vote, final testing saw problems with the voting machines, and some observers feared that elections could fail or fuel fierce post-vote protests because of technical problems.

When his win is made official, as is now expected, Aquino will face the daunting task of bringing change to this perennial Asian underachiever, which is rich in natural and human resources but has lagged its regional peers due to widespread corruption and the dominance of a landed elite.

Aquino ran on an anti-corruption, anti-poverty platform and successfully sold himself as the "cleanest" candidate, while his rivals were tainted with allegations of graft. "I will not only not steal, but I'll have the corrupt arrested," he told reporters in a news conference today, according to The Associated Press.

But some wonder whether the un-charismatic Aquino, himself part of an elite family with large property holdings, will be able to deliver on his promises.

He has pledged, for example, not to raise taxes, not to distribute pork-barrel spending, and to pursue the outgoing, unpopular president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on corruption charges, according to the Financial Times.

But one political analyst says he's heading for a reality check. "He needs a little bit more of pragmatism or political reality will overwhelm him," says Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, told the Financial Times.

At least nine were killed in election-related violence, with supporters of rival candidates involved in a shootout with police.

On election day Monday, Aquino himself experienced a five-hour delay in voting due to problems at his election station in Tarlac, his home province, according to ABS-CBN News.

His rival Estrada took exactly eight minutes to vote, out of superstition that eight is his lucky number, since he is the eighth of 10 children, according to the Manila Bulletin. Estrada, a former movie star, was ousted in 2001 amid allegations of massive graft. He was later convicted, then pardoned.

Monday's election also featured world boxing star Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao's bid for a House of Representatives seat (he was ahead in the polls as of late today), as well as the comeback of Imelda Marcos, the shoe-collecting wife of deceased autocrat Ferdinand Marcos. She won a House seat, as did outgoing president Arroyo.

Filipinos enthused about the new automated voting system in comments posted on BBC, saying it had curbed monkey business on election day.

Social media also figured prominently in the election, with one Filipino media outlet, ABS-CBN News, gushing that its Twitter page on the vote -- tagged #halalan, the Filipino word for elections -- vaulted past pop star Justin Bieber on Monday to become the third-highest "trending" topic.

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Noynoy in the lead

Aquinos' Son Has Big Lead in Philippines Race

AOL News, May 7, 2010 -- A son of pro-democracy icons looks set to win Monday's presidential election in the Philippines. But problems with a new automated voting system have cast a shadow of anxiety over the vote.

A win for leading candidate Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino would return power to a dynasty that has near saint-like status in the Philippines.

His father, Ninoy Aquino, was a democracy activist and vocal opponent of martial law. He was gunned down and killed at Manila Airport in 1983. His mother, Corazon Aquino, subsequently led the famous "People Power" movement that ended martial law and ushered in democracy. She was later elected president from 1986 to 1992.

But skeptics doubt whether their uncharismatic son can effectively tackle the problems -- especially corruption -- that have fed the country's decline from one of Asia's richest nations after World War II to a perennial laggard.

"He has done a very, very effective job as presenting himself as the least corrupt candidate," said Pete Troilo, director of business intelligence at Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a risk consultancy. "But I doubt that he has the fire in the belly to really implement the shift in governance that the Philippines needs."

Aquino has 42 percent support, up four points from mid-April. Two trailing contenders are in a statistical tie at almost 20 percent each, according to a poll released today.

That makes Aquino an overwhelming favorite to win Monday's vote, although his competitors insist a comeback isn't impossible.

The wrench in the works: A new automated voting system, to be used for the first time in a nationwide election, was found to have serious glitches in a final test this week.

The technical hiccup led to talk of a possible postponement of the election. That could result in a succession crisis since the current, unpopular president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, must step down June 30 according to the constitution. For now, election officials are insisting the vote will go ahead Monday.

Philippines elections are notorious for deadly violence, vote-buying and other fraud, and post-vote protests. Recent years have also seen frequent worries that Arroyo may try to extend her term. Arroyo's government has repeatedly denied this and said she will step down as legally required.

Any technical snafus delaying a result could fuel such conspiracy theories and worsen the Philippines' usual post-election unrest. Troilo, the risk consultant, said his firm is forecasting an "extremely high level of protests" after the election because of the uncertainty of the new voting system. "Apprehension is at an all-time high," he said.

Under pressure to ensure the new system works smoothly, Philippines election commission officials recently did something typical in this heavily Roman Catholic country.

They prayed. A lot.

"We pray, O God, that by your Divine Intervention, we will have the most honest, peaceful and orderly elections on May 10, 2010, of which we can be proud as the most credible electoral exercise in the history of our nation," said Commission on Elections chairman Jose Melo, in a prayer session at the commission's office with the Archbishop of Manila, according to a report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Corazon Aquino's death last year led to an emotional outpouring and calls for Noynoy to take up the torch and run for office. He agreed reluctantly to follow his parents' path -- after retreating to a convent to seek spiritual guidance. "Why should I veer away from their footprints?" he told Time magazine.

But critics note that he served in the Philippines Senate without distinction and say he lacks the strong personality needed to clean up Philippines politics. The country ranked No. 139 in Transparency International's 180-country Corruption Perception Index last year, far worse than China (79), India (84) or even Indonesia (111).

Others complain that Aquino represents just another elite, landed family and as such won't likely be able to address the Philippines' sharp rich-poor divide. The country's per-person GDP, at $3,300 on a purchasing-power basis, lags behind many Asian peers, and about one-third of the Philippines' 100 million population live in poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Aquino's main rival, Manuel Villar, is a self-made billionaire with a rags-to-riches story, who has tried to run a populist campaign promising more significant land reform. But his numbers have sagged in recent weeks amid criticism that he's too close to the deeply unpopular, outgoing president, Arroyo.

Villar is now statistically tied with movie star and former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in 2001 by a second "People Power" movement amid allegations of corruption.

The Philippines' economy relies in part on huge remittances from Filipinos working abroad. The country is also Asia's second biggest call center outsourcing location after India, hosting operations by most of the top U.S. outsourcing firms.

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