Villar draws neck and neck with Aquino

The former president Joesph Estrada, trailing the Philippine election campaign in a distant third, is seen as a possible kingmaker.

Presidential candidates for the May 10 national elections, from left, Benigno Aquino III, John Carlos de los Reyes, Richard Gordon, Jamby Madrigal, Nicanor Perlas, Gilbert Teodoro, Eddie Villanueva and Manuel Villar join their hands together prior to the start of the Philippine Daily Inquirer-sponsored presidential debate Monda, Feb. 8, 2010 at the University of the Philippines campus at Manila's Quezon city. The official campaign period for the Philippines' first-ever automated elections starts Tuesday, Feb. 9.  (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez) *** Local Caption ***  XBM102_Philippines_Elections.jpg *** Local Caption ***  XBM102_Philippines_Elections.jpg

MANILA // The Philippine election campaign officially kicks off today with the two main contenders for president - the senators Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino and Manuel "Manny" Villar - neck and neck in the latest opinion poll. Joseph Estrada, the former president who many say could determine who will become the next head of state, is trailing a distant third. The Pulse Asia poll, which was published last week, showed Mr Villar, a self-made billionaire, jumping to 35 per cent in January from 23 per cent in December, just two per cent behind the front-runner Mr Aquino. Nearly 50 million Filipinos will select a president, a vice president, nearly 300 legislators in the two houses of Congress and more than 17,500 local positions on May 10. Mr Aquino, who turned 50 yesterday, is the son of Corazon Aquino who became president in 1986 following a peaceful "People Power" revolution that saw the end of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

Despite restoring democracy to this South East Asian archipelago country, Aquino had to fend off a series of coup attempts by the military. In the eyes of the general population she was seen as a decent, honest woman but a weak leader. The death of Aquino in August thrust her son into the national limelight. As a senator, Mr Aquino is seen by many as being weak and without significant achievements, but at the same time not tainted by the corruption that is so common in Philippine politics. Another flaw seen in his character is that he lacks the steadfast resolve and sense of purpose of his father, the senator Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated at Manila airport in 1983. William Esposo, a columnist for the Philippine Star newspaper, wrote recently that "Noynoy has emerged as the rallying point of all Filipinos seeking meaningful change and reform. Instead of having to select from a roster of perceived lesser evils - there is suddenly an available choice that is admittedly good. From having to settle for whoever is perceived as the least spotty, Filipinos can now vote for one who is simply clean."

For his part, Mr Villar appears not to have been affected by a corruption public works scandal involving his companies that has been the subject of a lengthy and at times acrimonious debate in the Senate. Mr Estrada has seen his popularity drop to 12 per cent from 19 per cent in December. The film star turned politician was elected president of the Philippines in 1998 with 39.6 per cent of the vote in a field of 11 contenders - the highest vote margin in multi-party polls. Mr Estrada stayed in office for only 30 months and was thrown out in a coup led by the military, church and business elites. He was charged with plunder and given a life sentence, only to have it overturned by the woman who helped overthrow him, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the sitting president. No one believes Mr Estrada will win, but he is seen as a possible kingmaker in the crowded field of 10 candidates, given he will probably take votes from one or both of the main candidates, or withdraw his candidacy and back one of them. Speaking at a forum recently, Mr Estrada dismissed reports that he would withdraw. "I want to be king again myself [and] recover my throne that was stolen from me." But Mr Estrada, 72, probably knows he no longer has the support he once commanded and behind the scenes the Aquino and Villar camps are already seeking his support. For Mr Aquino the results are not encouraging considering he had a lead over Mr Villar of 20 per cent when he announced that he would run last September.

Over the next 90 days, candidates will probably spend between three billion pesos and 10bn pesos (Dh237 million and Dh791m). According to a Nielsen Media Research study, Mr Villar spent 543m pesos in advertising from October to December. Although it is illegal to show political advertisements before the campaign period begins, Mr Villar's ads have been subtle corporate ads outlining what his business empire, mainly construction, has achieved. Political analysts say it is too early to predict who will win "It's still fluid because most voters have not heard the other candidates," Ronald Holmes, a political science professor of De La Salle University in Manila and president of Pulse Asia Inc, said recently. "Ratings change significantly during the actual campaign." Amando Doronila, a prominent political commentator, said the "latest survey changes the mood and focus of the election campaign which now seems to be turning into an intense slugfest between Aquino and Villar".

Writing in the Daily Inquirer, he said: "The issue that looms in the wake of the survey is whether Aquino or Villar presents an alternative to president Macapagal Arroyo and can offer better governance than her corruption scandal-ridden administration. "Aquino has defined honest government as the fundamental issue. By contrast, Villar has dodged the issue, and he and other presidential aspirants have focused on Aquino's lack of administrative experience and his failure to present a programme and policy on what he intends to do if elected."