When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is inaugurated as President of the Philippines on Wednesday, uncertainty over whether she is the true winner of last month's election will hang heavy in the minds of many Filipinos. Voting irregularities, ineptness by officials, biased monitoring, fraud, vote-buying and violence were so prevalent that doubts over the legitimacy of her rule may well remain for the duration of her six-year term.
Upcoming reports by election watchdog groups will shed light on the extent of the problems, but will not discount the possibility, in the minds of opposition supporters, that they were robbed of victory.
Nor will the fact that the winner will finally take office after six weeks of laborious vote-counting spark the influx of foreign investment so badly needed to kick-start the collapsing economy. More likely, observers believe, investors will wait for the reforms Mrs Arroyo promised when she took power without public mandate after a military takeover almost two-and-a-half years ago, but never implemented.
Supporters of failed presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jnr, who official results show polled 1.1 million votes less than the just under 13 million Mrs Arroyo garnered, are continuing their struggle for the truth. They have promised a march on Wednesday on the scale of the one-million-strong 'People Power' protest that led to the toppling of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Opposition senator Aquilino Pimentel warned last week that Mrs Arroyo's proclamation 'might reap the whirlwind of instability'. The returning president responded by calling for national unity.
'To my detractors, I appeal for unity,' she said last Thursday after the Congressional committee which monitored the count declared her the winner. 'I appeal for an open mind. This is a time for forgiveness, for letting go of the past.'
Observers said last week that extending an olive branch of peace was easier said than done. That Mrs Arroyo had taken office in dubious circumstances after the ousting of her predecessor Joseph Estrada on still-unproven corruption charges had been a bitter enough pill for his supporters. That many had voted for his friend, fellow action movie star Mr Poe, only to see him lose in what they considered questionable circumstances, had confirmed suspicions of fraud.
Those involved in the vote count and monitoring of the process are in no doubt that Mrs Arroyo won. They said fraud had occurred, but not at a sufficient level to overturn her victory.
Monitor for independent watchdog the National Citizen's Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), Damaso Magbual, said much of the cheating had taken place in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao. Elections had not been held in 11 municipalities totalling about 90,000 people, yet results had been submitted to the Commission on Elections, he charged.
He contended that a poorly-run opposition campaign and pro-government bias among candidates in the second city, Cebu, had also led to one-sided vote counts. Nonetheless, there was no doubt about the winner. 'Mrs Arroyo really won the election based on our findings,' Mr Magbual said.
Of most concern to analysts was the way the government-appointed commission, also known as Comelec, conducted the election. They blame flawed voter registration lists and a failed attempt to introduce computerised vote counting for confusion and discontent.
The government gave the go-ahead for computerisation in 1997, and allocated 3.2 billion pesos (about HK$447 million), but only on May 10 were computers and software purchased. But the computers were not used and the estimated 34 million votes cast ended up being again counted by hand. Computers for counting votes proved to be the wrong type required and the Supreme Court in January ruled that the software had been tendered for incorrectly.
A computerised system for compiling voter lists also proved to be flawed, preventing between 900,000 and two million people from casting ballots. Showing up at polling booths, they found personal data such as their birth date and address were incorrect, making them ineligible to vote.
Comelec puts the number at 900,000, but Namfrel says it is between 1.5 million and 2 million.
Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos sidelined criticism on Friday, saying that Congress was ultimately responsible for the voting process.
'Whatever the questions are, Comelec does not canvass the votes for president and vice-president,' Mr Abalos said. 'Any questions arising from the canvassing by Congress should be raised before the proper authority, which is the Electoral Tribunal.'
He said delays in issuing results created unnecessary suspicion that the count was being manipulated, proving the need for computerisation. A committee he had set up was looking into ways of reforming the process.
Mr Magbual said the level of disenfranchisement had been determined by a lower-than-usual voter turnout of about 75 per cent. He did not believe, though, that Mrs Arroyo or Mr Poe had been favoured by the mistake.
Because Comelec had not ordered enough computers, some municipalities had not been able to compile voter lists on time, he contended. In Tagig, Manila, the list of people eligible to vote had not been available at polling stations until 10am, hours after the start of voting. In the second biggest of the four districts in Quezon City, which had 500,000 voters, lists had still not been completed three days before the election.
Mr Magbual suggested that Congress should approve legislation giving meaning to a party political law. This would mean that political alliances could be built and election campaigning done on the basis of issues and programme rather than on personalities, as was now the case.
He said voter education at schools should be increased to instil in Filipinos the basic rights of suffrage and to teach that votes bought by aspirants to political office was 'in effect, selling the future of their children'.
Congressman Florencio Abad, a member of the committee which canvassed the votes for president and vice-president and whose Liberal party is allied to Mrs Arroyo, rejected opposition allegations of widespread fraud and said the committee was right to refuse the recounting of ballots because of the time involved.
Mr Abad said automation of the voting process was essential, but the wisdom of Congress being the electoral gate-keeper also had to be reassessed. Comelec or the Supreme Court were better suited to such a role, he believed.
Analysts agreed the election had damaged the Philippines' image and undermined faith in the electoral process among Filipinos. Elections in indonesia and India, which had much bigger electorates and had run considerably smoother, had shown the failings of the Philippines' system.
The deaths of 142 people in election-related violence, worse than in recent elections, was a disturbing trend, they said. Vote-buying had been rampant.
The executive director of Manila think-tank the Institute for Popular Democracy, Joel Rocamora, said what he described as a 'debacle' must never be repeated. But Mrs Arroyo, despite the mandate she had won, had limited time to restore credibility.
'If in her first 100 days, President Arroyo takes steps that show she's going to be serious about political and economic reform, she will strengthen her mandate,' Dr Rocamora said. But as to whether this would happen remained an open question for observers. The executive director of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, Sheila Coronel, said Filipinos would have to 'wait and see'.
'So far her track record as a politician is that she does not rock the boat,' the highly respected award-winning journalist observed. 'She is not a risk-taker. She is very much business and politics as usual.'