The reward for winning
On May 10, the Philippines goes to the polls, with incumbent Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo expected to secure the presidency, albeit by a narrow margin.
Unlike her Indonesian counterpart, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose shyness and quasi-aristocratic diffidence is legendary in Jakarta (both women are daughters of iconic national leaders), Mrs Arroyo has been one of Asia's most effective and hardened campaigners.
By way of comparison, her chief rival in the presidential race, former action-movie star Fernando Poe Jnr, is a political neophyte. The 64-year-old actor lacks the experience of his drinking buddy and ally, former president Joseph Estrada, who fought and convincingly won countless elections.
Poe's personal popularity among the working class is undoubted. However, his limited understanding of economics, and poor management skills, have translated into a ramshackle and incoherent campaign that has frittered away his initial lead.
Marites Vitug, editor of the weekly Newsbreak, explains: 'Gloria has the advantage of incumbency. She knows the issues and understands the political terrain. Moreover, she knows how to use the full might of government machinery in order to win votes. [Poe] is clueless.
'Filipino politics has become increasingly professional and scientific. Candidates must have both the money and the ability to use it wisely.'
While there is no doubt that Mrs Arroyo is far more capable than Poe, her record in office over the past three years has been desultory. As one businessman said: 'Both are equally bad. At least we know with Poe it will be a shorter trip to an economic meltdown and hell.'
Mrs Arroyo's defenders argue that she has had to contend with numerous challenges to her legitimacy, especially given the questionable manner in which she assumed the presidency after Estrada's ousting in 2001. But for many foreign investors and fund managers, her weakness and indecision in the face of entrenched business interests has been disappointing.
Certainly, the Philippines continues to stumble economically. With a population of more than 83 million and growing, a 5.3 per cent fiscal deficit, and a measly trade surplus of US$400 million, future prospects are not rosy.
Chronic income disparities have led to a situation where the richest 10 per cent has 24 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. For the bulk of the population, emigration is the only solution to mind-numbing poverty, and well over 3,500 Filipinos are leaving every day in search of better prospects. As a consequence, remittances (estimated at US$7 billion per annum) have become a vital prop to the economy.
Mrs Arroyo has to address the deeply rooted structural problems and use her mandate to curb the overpowering greed and short-sightedness of the commercial elite. At the same time, she must calm the unease of foreign investors who see the Philippines as Southeast Asia's 'basket case'.
Public life has to be made more responsible, accountable and purposeful. Mrs Arroyo must learn from former president Fidel Ramos, who demonstrated leadership and strength of will. Like him, she must create an environment where there is a shared sense of national purpose. Without such leadership, the Philippines will be eclipsed by China, India and Vietnam.
Still, Francis Pangilinan, a pro-Arroyo senator, said: 'I'm very optimistic that with a fresh mandate she will be able to focus on the key challenges facing the nation. She recognises that the budget deficit has to be addressed; that expenditure must be curbed and tax collection stepped up.'
For Mrs Arroyo, the real challenge is not out 'on the stump', electioneering - it will only materialise if she returns to Malacanang Palace. She has to disprove her critics, and show that she can save the Philippines from perdition.
Karim Raslan is a lawyer and writer based in Kuala Lumpur