The Philippine presidential elections next year will be one of the closest fought in history and will be won by the candidate who has the biggest campaign budget and ground-level network, analysts said on Thursday.
About a half-dozen candidates are expected to be in the fray for the May 2010 elections to replace President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and lead the Southeast Asian nation for the next six years.
"This is going to be one of the closest political contests in Philippine history," Earl Parreño, an analyst from the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, told Reuters.
"Based on initial public opinion polls, we don't really see any runaway candidate. Next year's contest might be decided by less than one million votes (out of a 40-million electorate) so the candidate with vast resources and network would really have a clear edge."
The main likely candidates are:
- Senator Manuel Villar. Perhaps the best placed in terms of money, he is a self-made billionaire and controls real estate firm Vista Land and Lifescapes. In politics for 17 years, he says his experience of running a company will be key to a successful presidency.
- Senator Manuel "Mar" Roxas II. Called the intelligent man's candidate, Roxas is a former Wall Street banker and the grandson of a former president. He has served as trade secretary in two cabinets. No slouch in the money department either, his mother belongs to the wealthy Araneta clan, which owns a large chunk of Manila real estate.
- Senator Francis "Chiz" Escudero. Not yet 40, he qualifies to run for president only this October. He is frequently compared to US President Barack Obama and is banking on his charisma and the large number of young voters to win. Seeking the backing of the Nationalist People's Coalition, headed by San Miguel chairman Eduardo Cojuangco, one of the wealthiest individuals in the country.
- Senator Loren Legarda. The only woman among likely candidates, she won the most number of votes in senatorial elections in 2007, a good indicator of national appeal. A former cover girl and television news reader, she wants to be the country's first "green" president. May be hampered by a lack of funds and doubts whether another woman would be able to win after Arroyo, whose popularity is currently low.
- Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro. Says he is waiting for Arroyo's approval to contest. If he gets that, he will get the support of the powerful Lakas-Kampi ruling coalition's electoral machine, but may also inherit Arroyo's unpopularity. He is also nephew to former President Corazon Aquino and to Cojuangco of San Miguel, and the latter could end up supporting him.
- Vice-President Manuel "Noli" de Castro. Consistently high in opinion polls, but has refused to indicate whether he will be a candidate. Has rarely spoken publicly about serious issues, but enjoys wide popularity because of his career as a radio and television news anchor.
Parties don't matter
Analysts say a good campaign could cost P3 to P4 billion ($60-80 million), a huge sum in the Philippines, and a loyal network will be essential for a candidate looking to win.
"Parties do not really matter, because at the end of the day politicians will choose the one with the biggest chance," said political analyst Antonio Gatmaitan.
Local politicians, from governors down to mayors, were expected to cross party lines and loyalties to support the candidate perceived to have the highest chance to win, he said.
"The candidate is the party," he said.
By the end of this year, perhaps only four serious candidates will be left, analysts said.
"By then, the major political forces would have chosen their bets," Gatmaitan said.
"It's totally a free-for-all contest," he added.