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The struggle for change in the Philippines

Change seems hard to come by in the Philippines, but Filipinos are hoping to make a difference at the polls. By's Martin Wolk in Manila.
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Rito Telon wants change, but change seems hard to come by in the Philippines.

Telon, 27, who supports a wife and daughter on just $4 a day in one of the poorest parts of Quezon City near Manila, is one of millions of Filipinos who went to the polls Monday and voted for Fernando Poe Jr., a movie star considered the chief rival to incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Telon, who works directing traffic in the hectic streets of Quezon, said Poe is a “good man” despite a complete lack of political experience and a formal education that ended in eighth grade.

Telon and other unemployed and underemployed workers who gathered at Libis Elementary School to monitor election results said they realized their desperate situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. Yet many said they were supporting Poe or one of the other opposition candidates including former national Police Chief Panfilo Lacson.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” offered one man, explaining his decision to support Poe.

“He’s not one of the ‘tradpos,’” said Joffre Sta. Maria, 50, referring to traditional politicians who often are assumed to be corrupt. Sta. Maria, a government worker who was interviewed at another polling station, a few miles away in the more middle class Makati City, also said he supported Poe, hoping for a change in government corruption.

Poe, an action hero who has been described as a combination of John Wayne and Arnold  Schwarzenegger, appeared to be faltering in the final days of the campaign, with the latest opinion polls showing Arroyo with a widening lead of about 6 percentage points.

According to several observers, Poe was suffering from his failure to articulate any political program beyond an image of quiet strength forged in dozens of popular films.

Poe declined to appear in debates and said little in his campaign appearances, leading many Filipinos to conclude that he may not have the ability to lead a government.

Poe’s close association with former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in a corruption scandal in 2001, did not appear to be a major issue.

A so-called “quick count” of about 1 million votes late Monday showed Poe slightly ahead of Arroyo, an American-trained economist. Definitive results were not likely for several days.

An estimated 70 percent or more of an eligible 40 million Filipinos were expected to turn out for the fourth presidential election since the end of the Marcos era in 1986.

The winner faces a long list of problem, including an economy that seems permanently stuck in slow-growth mode, endemic corruption and deep poverty, with a per capita income of less than $1,000 a year.

Currency remittances from some 6 million Filipinos working abroad are crucial to fueling consumer spending. But the lure of foreign jobs also offers an attractive escape route for many hard-working and talented young people who otherwise might make a larger contribution at home 

Eloisa Opena, principal of the Libis School in Quezon, says she sees many undernourished children among the 1,000 students who attend her overcrowded school. Charitable groups provide lunch or snacks several days a week, but they can only serve about 60 of the very poorest students.

Construction was started three years ago on a new wing for the school but never finished, so students attend schools in two shifts, beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m.

Still, Opena said she was upbeat, in part due to corporate donations that have underwritten a new library collection and math program.

At 3 p.m., an election worker used a stick to bang on the flagpole in the muddy school courtyard, declaring an end to voting for the day.

Paid political observers gathered in each classroom to watch as the ballot boxes were opened, and neutral volunteers kept an independent tally in many polling places. Then teachers, who are designated as vote tabulators, began the laborious process of opening ballots and reading out the results for 17,000 elected positions in the archipelago, ranging from local council members to the president, vice president and nationally elected senators.