DIGOS, Philippines -- As a presidential race tainted by violence and chicanery draws to a close, Vice President Joseph "Erap" Estrada is the man of the people to beat Monday.
From a field of 10 1/2 candidates -- former first lady Imelda Marcos was in the race, dropped out and now is half-heartedly back in -- Filipino voters seem ready to elect a controversial former B-movie actor to navigate their country through the Asian financial turmoil and into the 21st century.
Estrada's detractors scorn the 61-year-old, who has a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls. They ridicule him as an unsavory, booze-bloated womanizer who has spent more time partying with underworld buddies than preparing to lead a country.
But election fraud could make the difference. Election fraud in the Philippines is not an aberration. It's a tradition.
Local historians say the nation's first vote 100 years ago was rigged, and almost every election since has been tainted.
The ways of cheating are varied and imaginative, and although most of them are not unique to the Philippines, they are remarkably durable here.
More than a few of the nation's dead are registered to vote, and some villages turn in more ballots than they have residents. Ballot boxes get firebombed or seared with acid. And in a popular technique called "dagdag bawas," which translates as add-subtract, large blocs of votes are taken from some candidates' totals and added to others'.
In the 1995 Senate race, election officials were accused of calling competing candidates on the telephone to solicit bids for votes before announcing the results.
One of the candidates who claims to have been cheated in those elections, Gen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former Armed Forces chief of staff, says that when he demanded an investigation, he was told the probe would cost him nearly $1 million and would not be finished before 2001.
Evidence is mounting that this year's vote will be tainted, too.
The National Commission on Elections has already taken away ZTC local control of voting in one province, seven legislative districts and 34 municipalities to minimize cheating and violence.
And last week, the governor of a Muslim autonomous region urged the elections commission to suspend balloting on the island of Mindanao because of massive registration fraud.
"Whatever the results, the coming elections will not reflect the real voice of the people," Gov. Nur Misuari warned. "Where else can you see registered names belonging to newborn babies, every child in the family and maybe even the dogs and chickens?"
Misuari said some villages with only 500 people of voting age have 3,000 registered voters.
Pub Date: 5/09/98