The people of the Philippines go to the polls today with the holding of elections for the posts of president and vice-president as well as half of the 24 seats in the senate. Unlike other election years, this presidential campaign has raised some concerns.

Voters will have a hard time choosing between candidates who have no clear policy direction and who have turned the presidential election race into a popularity contest.

(L-R): Villanueva, Roco, Poe, Lacson and Arroyo
Out of more than 40 applicants, only five are competing for the post of president. Current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is running for president for the first time. She was elected vice-president in 1998 but took over as president in January, 2001, after President Joseph Estrada was removed from office.

Although she announced in late 2002 that she would not seek a second term in office, she had a change of heart when the presidential campaign began last October. She is running this year to legitimise her presidential role.

Arroyo's biggest competitor, Fernando Poe, is very popular among the poorer Filipinos. The Filipinos are divided between Arroyo and Poe. Polls held in mid-February showed both candidates tied for the post of president, each with about 31 per cent support.

Running against a popular actor prompted Arroyo to rope in a well-known news anchor, Nol de Castro, as her running mate. In doing so she hoped to boost her media image. The daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal, Arroyo enjoys the support of most of the politicians in the country. However, her critics accuse her of a lack of charisma which Poe seems to have in spades.

Her strength lies in her economic policies. As an economist, Arroyo is popular for helping the Philippine economy rebound after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, even though the economy currently suffers from a 12.7 per cent unemployment rate.

Running for the Coalition of Honest and Experience for the Future, K4, Arroyo's campaign has focused on poverty and violence in the country.

Like Arroyo, Poe vows to fight poverty in the country. Running under the Coalition of the United Filipinos Party, KNP, his campaign strategy has centred around his anti-poverty stance, although he has failed to present details of his platform.

Poe also vows to tackle the country's huge economic problems, stating that it is the "greatest scandal in our history". His critics say that the inexperienced actor turned politician has yet to provide details of his policies. Claiming that he is unqualified for the job, they say he lacks the support of the businessmen in the Philippines.

Tackle the problems

In attempts to increase his business supporters, Senator Vicente Sotto, a spokesman of Poe's party, promised that Poe would identify three prominent economists as part of the party as well as try to tackle the country's huge economic problems.

He has vaguely stated that his government hopes to make drastic cost cuts in non-essential expenditure as well as make bold tax reforms to improve revenue collection, attempt to balance the budget, increase funds for rural infrastructure and use foreign aid to finance low interest credit windows for farmers and fishermen. He has also claimed his government will extend health insurance coverage to 90 per cent of the population by 2007.

His close friendship to former President Joseph Estrada is one of his biggest drawbacks, as people fear that Poe could turn into another Estrada. In spite of that, his fame is his ticket to victory.

His popularity was tested last November when the Philippine Supreme Court questioned his eligibility as a presidential candidate. The court doubted his Philippine citizenship because his mother was American. While the hearings took place, thousands of his fans protested and threatened a violent outbreak if the "king of Philippine movies" was disqualified from the elections.

Poe's running mate is well-known TV personality Loren Legarda.

Poe's popularity extends beyond the Philippines' borders. He is expected to secure the majority of the votes of the 317,448 registered overseas Filipino voters.

Another in the political fray is Raul Roco, a former senator and former education secretary. He has caught the attention of students and professionals. He runs for the alliance of the Hope Party and is viewed as the most qualified candidate intellectually.

Securing the votes of the Chinese community in the country is Panfilo Lacson, a former chief police and senator. His campaign has centred around crime and corruption. Lacson is not new to politics. He served under former president Estrada but is better known for the scandal of 1995 when the 54-year-old candidate was tied to the killings of 11 bank robbers.

Presidential aspirant, Eddie Villanueva, a television evangelist, ranks low in the polls. His issues of importance are education, economy and government reforms. He claims his candidacy is a "prophetic gesture to redeem the Philippines".

He has made many promises such as upgrading incomes and benefits in the government services, narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, and eliminating corruption in government.

Today, the voters have a tough task ahead of them, presented with a choice between five candidates who have yet to present a clearly defined plan for a prosperous Philippine. Even so, 80 million voters take to the polls in hopes of choosing one candidate who will be their answer to urgent reforms and strong leadership.