Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino of the Liberal Party is heading for a resounding victory in the Philippine presidential election. On a turnout estimated at 75 per cent of the 50-million strong electorate, Mr. Aquino has a 15 percentage point lead over his nearest rival, former president Joseph Estrada of the Force of the Filipino Masses party (PMP), with about five million votes yet to be counted. The national Congress will announce the final results when it convenes at the end of May. The election itself was notable for two main reasons. First, severe pre-election political violence, the worst of which saw 57 people murdered in a single attack, did not escalate during the poll. On the day, incidents were only sporadic, though up to 14 lives were lost. Secondly, while there was some vote-buying, the electoral process was made more secure by electronic voting for all the 17,000 posts contested at a wide range of levels; with very few technical hitches, voters themselves fed their completed ballot papers into a scanner for direct transmission to a central server in Manila. Overall, public confidence in the system is higher.
The President-elect faces formidable challenges. The first is a culture of rampant corruption. This has been greatly exacerbated during the nine-year term of outgoing President Macapagal-Arroyo, who has appointed an ally as Chief Justice, presumably to obstruct future investigation into her conduct. Secondly, the budget deficit has ballooned as the economy slid and the worldwide depression hit remittances from Filipinos working abroad. Thirdly, the U.S. will almost certainly resist a reassessment of the Visiting Forces Agreement, whereby Philippines-based U.S. service personnel on criminal charges are held in American custody. The Obama administration will also be hostile to changes in the semi-permanent status of the U.S. forces, which are helping to counter radical Islamist insurgents on Mindanao. Furthermore, political inexperience itself may be a drawback for Mr. Aquino, as it was for his mother, Corazon Aquino, during her presidency in the 1980s. The new leader, however, has been given a mandate to crack down on corruption and tax fraud, and thereby help the public finances. He can be expected to put relations between Manila and Washington on a more equal footing. The hope is that he can achieve those aims, which are badly needed by a country once seen as a potential economic rival even to Japan.