Philippine tycoon Manuel Villar pledged to deliver “quick fixes” for the nation’s agricultural and infrastructure shortcomings should he defeat frontrunner Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in the May 10 presidential election.
“What will impress foreign investors is if they see things moving in this country,” Villar, 60, said in an interview yesterday in Manila’s business district. “If you go to Shanghai, every three months you will see a different landscape.”
Aquino, the 50-year-old son of a former president, has built a lead in polls by painting his rival as corrupt. Villar, ousted as Senate leader in 2008 amid graft allegations, counters that his experience as a property developer who survived a credit crisis makes him the only candidate qualified to revive an economy that trails the rest of the region.
“Our neighbors have left us behind precisely because of the incompetence of our leaders,” Villar said. “The next president will be confronted by serious problems. He must be able to manage the country’s problems from day one.”
Aquino led 37 percent to 29 percent in a Social Weather Stations survey commissioned by Villar. The March 28-30 poll had a 2.2 percentage point margin of error.
The successor to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will be squeezed between the need to alleviate poverty and the lack of funds to do it. One in four Filipinos live on less than $1.25 a day and the government has run an annual budget surplus only four times in the past 24 years.
The Philippines received $1.5 billion in foreign direct investment in 2008, compared with $7.3 billion for Malaysia, and $9.8 billion for Thailand, Association of Southeast Asian Nation statistics show. Its $167 billion economy ranks 13th among 17 in Asia tracked by Bloomberg, while its population comes in seventh.
Villar’s “platform is that what he did in the private sector he can do for everyone else,” said Luz Lorenzo, an economist at ATR-KimEng Securities Inc. in Manila.
As a boy, Villar helped his mother sell shrimp in Manila’s largest market before earning degrees in business and accounting. After running a sand-and-gravel business, he built low-cost housing before winning a congressional seat in 1992 and taking his company, C&P Homes Inc., public three years later.
Laden with debt after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, the company settled with creditors in 2007, the same year Villar sold shares in Vista Land & Lifescapes Inc. He has a personal fortune of $530 million, according to Forbes magazine.
Villar almost closed Aquino’s lead in January. The gap has since widened amid allegations he’s secretly backed by the unpopular Arroyo and used his Senate career to accrue wealth.
If elected, his top priority will be to improve tax revenue by cutting corruption and wringing out bureaucratic efficiencies. To deliver results quickly, Villar said he’ll focus on what’s achievable and affordable.
“If you really want to reduce poverty significantly, you’ve got to address agriculture,” he said, because more than 60 percent of Filipinos rely on farming for their livelihood. “It may contribute only 20 or 30 percent of the economy, but it affects a lot of people.”
Fixing irrigation, providing cheap loans to millers and investing in transportation and storage facilities would provide an immediate boost, he said. The Philippines loses as much rice from poor storage and transportation as it imports, he said.
The roads budget could also be better used, he said, citing the need to extend the main highway through Luzon, the archipelago’s biggest island, and improve links with ports.
The challenge is “really tough,” Villar said. “Improperly handled, it could be a crisis.”
Eliminating corruption may prove equally daunting in a country ranked 139th out of 180 by graft watchdog Transparency International. Villar’s ouster as Senate leader came after a fellow member raised graft allegations concerning a highway that ran through his property. He has denied any impropriety and the Senate hasn’t voted on censure recommendations laid by 12 of the 23 senators, including Aquino.
“His wealth is tightly related to his being a public official,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Economic Reform. “He became rich when he entered government.”
Villar said he now wants to focus on the need for leadership, rather than rebutting Aquino’s “black propaganda.”
“They want to avoid discussing who is more competent,” he said. “I am up against someone who has no experience, has not demonstrated any managerial ability, and has not led anything.”
Aquino entered the presidential race following the death last year of his mother, former president Corazon Aquino, who remains a popular figure for her role in toppling dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Opponents say the son has achieved little in 12 years as a legislator.
The country’s future depends on finding the right leader, Villar said, citing examples such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“Always there is that one man, that leader, who is able to turn the country around,” he said. “My dream is to be that man.”