A choice between a presidential candidate dogged by allegations of corruption and another with an image as a womanising, gambler and heavy drinker, does not seem to present too much of a dilemma for Filipino voters. Vice-president Joseph Estrada is leading his nearest rival by 18 per cent in the polls, his popularity influenced by a movie career in which he played a variety of Robin Hood characters who robbed the rich to help the poor. Even if illusory, that cannot fail to be an attractive prospect to the electorate of a country only now recovering from 20 years of systematic looting by former president Ferdinand Marcos.
The second favourite, Speaker of the House Jose de Venecia, is certainly the more experienced politician, and probably the best successor of outgoing president Fidel Ramos. But the widespread belief that he has been involved in questionable land deals has revived bitter memories of high-level corruption. Against that background, Mr Estrada has emerged as a unifying force. His lack of experience, however, is his major drawback. Foreign investors are likely to be apprehensive about an untried leader at the helm at such troubled economic times. Under Mr Ramos's six-year rule, the country regained a new self-confidence as the economy grew. Although the Philippines has been hit by the regional crisis, Mr Ramos forecast that growth would continue and that despite problems the government would record a five billion peso (HK$1.01 billion) budget surplus at year's end.
Suggestions that his government covered up a deficit of seven billion pesos by creative accounting last year will, if true, tarnish his record.
The fact remains, however, that Mr Ramos has done much to rebuild the country and restore its international image. But for an understandable aversion to any president extending a six-year term of office, he might still have been seen as the best man for the job, certainly while economic turmoil continues. However, democratic institutions are more important than individuals. And Mr Estrada, if he wins, may yet grow into office and prove his detractors wrong.