The movie star and the lapdog

Observations on Philippines

Known locally as "America's girl", Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippine president, has hitched her nation's well-being to the US president, George W Bush. "In time of crisis," Arroyo said during a 2003 visit to the White House, "friends do not ask why; they ask how." Like Tony Blair, she backed Bush first on Afghanistan and then on Iraq, sending a small military and police contingent there. She also welcomed an expanded US military presence in the Philippines. The two countries have a common interest in quelling Muslim insurgents (al-Qaeda has had a shadowy presence in the Philippines since the early 1990s) and US military aid to Manila rose from $38m in 2001 to $114.5m in 2003. The US and Philippine armed forces now carry out almost continuous joint training missions.

But in May, Arroyo faces elections. George Bush's coat-tails - although they may help Republicans in Kansas - won't be long enough to pull her back into office. Her hand-picked vice-president resigned as foreign secretary and left the ruling party owing to differences over US relations. A left-wing charge that Arroyo is tuta ng 'kano (an American lapdog) has found resonance.

None of this might matter if Arroyo were an effective president. But she has been a mediocre leader, unwilling to take chances or challenge established bastions of political power. Corruption and unpredictable policies fail to inspire investor confidence. The peso is losing value, unemployment is high and steps to stabilise the public finances - by indexing cigarette and alcohol taxes to inflation, for example - have not happened. In the face of Catholic opposition, Arroyo backed down from improving family planning; and, once she decided to run again for president, she dropped a moratorium on executions.

Her opponents include a former police commander who faces on-again, off-again murder charges and a popular film star, Fernando Poe Jr (or FPJ). Although he leads by nine points in the opinion polls and is popular with the poor, Poe seems unqualified to head any nation's government. A crony of Joseph Estrada, the actor and deposed president who preceded Arroyo in office, he has never served in congress, run a provincial or municipal government, or held a post in cabinet. So laughable are his qualifications that he points to his movie roles as credentials: he played a mayor, and so he must be capable of governing.

In a better democracy, Arroyo would face a serious challenge from a candidate presenting an alternative programme of government. Here in Manila, the contest is shaping up as a potentially vicious and dirty showdown between celebrity and state power and patronage.

When the US began to colonise the country in 1898, it promised democracy to the Filipinos. Now it makes the same promise in another part of the world - while the Philippines demonstrates how hard it is to make imported democracy work.

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