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Filipinos Use Food for Votes as Hunger Fuels Revolt

Philippine presidential candidate Joseph Estrada
Philippine presidential candidate Joseph Estrada speaks to supporters during his 73rd birthday celebration in Payatas. Photographer: Edwin Tuyay/Bloomberg

Ricardo Istacion said he had the best meal of his life on April 19, feasting on fish, chicken and pork at a party thrown by Philippine presidential candidate Joseph Estrada to celebrate his 73rd birthday.

“Most days, we just have rice porridge,” said Istacion, a 54-year-old widower and father of two who collects recyclable waste at the garbage mountain in the Payatas district of Manila. Estrada “really loves Payatas, and for that I will vote for him.”

While filling empty bellies helps win votes, politicians have failed to keep them full once in power. Whoever wins in the May 10 election will inherit hunger and unemployment that is fueling communist and Muslim insurgencies, perpetuating the Philippines’ status as a perennial economic underachiever.

“If things are really deteriorating then it’s a risk that investors will move on to more attractive destinations,” said Tim Condon, Singapore-based chief Asia economist at ING Groep NV. “Patience isn’t unlimited.”

The Jakarta Composite Index has risen more than 160 percent in the past five years, while the Philippine benchmark gained less than 70 percent. Moody’s Investors Service rates Indonesia, which was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund in 1998, one level higher at Ba2 than the Philippines.

Corruption, mismanagement and a threefold jump in the population have eaten away at an economy that was Southeast Asia’s biggest in the 1960s. It has now been outstripped by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

Corruption Index

Corruption means money for roads and other infrastructure goes missing. An average of 20 percent to 30 percent of every contract is lost to graft or inefficiency, the World Bank said in a 2008 study.

The Philippines slipped in last year’s Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index to 139th place from 131st in 2007. Indonesia rose to 111th from 143rd, according to the Berlin-based watchdog’s website.

Estrada, who was convicted of corruption in 2007 and later freed by a presidential pardon, was vying for second place with Senator Manuel Villar, 60, in a poll published today by BusinessWorld newspaper. Estrada had 20 percent and Villar 19 percent, while Benigno Aquino, son of a former president, led with 42 percent, according to the survey of 2,400 adults. It was conducted May 2 to May 3 and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Feeding Itself

One of the biggest challenges facing the winner is the nation’s inability to feed itself. The Philippines has gone from being an occasional net exporter of rice before 1988 to become the world’s biggest importer as yields stagnated, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Indonesia is now self-sufficient in rice, after importing 5.77 million tons in 1998.

Philippine farmers are forecast to produce on average 3.6 tons of rice a hectare, compared with 5 tons per hectare in Indonesia, the USDA website shows.

The government of outgoing President Gloria Arroyo, 63, says it spent almost all of the 12 billion pesos ($268 million) it budgeted to fix irrigation systems and boost harvests. Jimmy Tadeo, Manila-based head of a 20,000-strong farmers’ group, said he had seen no evidence of this work on recent tours of rice-growing regions.

‘Romancing the Data’

“The government is romancing the data,” Tadeo said. “If they had actually spent all that 12 billion pesos in irrigation, we would be self-sufficient in rice.”

The country’s lowest rice yields are in the southern island of Mindanao, where U.S. Special Forces are helping fight Muslim and communist insurgencies. Mindanao is home to the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf and the communist New People’s Army, both branded terror organizations by the U.S.

The 2.9 tons a hectare eked out by the island’s farmers helps explain per capita income of less than $1 a day. The Philippine regions most vulnerable to armed conflict were those with the lowest incomes and poorest education, the United Nations said in a 2005 report.

Failure to deliver more rapid economic growth means the country’s new president will face a growing wave of unemployment. The working-age population is forecast to jump 52 percent between 2005 and 2030, according to Jesus Felipe, principal economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

Jobless Rate

While the official jobless rate rose to 7.3 percent in January from 7.1 percent in October, the National Statistics Office estimated that only 64.5 percent of the people of working age are actually employed.

That puts even the government’s subsidized rice beyond the means of many, increasing the value of a free meal from a politician. The number of Filipino households who had nothing to eat at least one day in a quarter rose to a record 24 percent, according to a survey released Jan. 12 by Social Weather Stations, a Manila-based researcher.

Demand for rice from government stockpiles jumps in the run-up to elections, data from the National Food Authority show. In the five months to May 1998, when Estrada won the presidency, rice releases from state supplies jumped almost five-fold. The 207,125 tons of rice released in March this year were the highest for that month since at least 1991.

“When you have a situation where people really have nothing, they become easy prey to these kinds of tactics,” said Rey Trillana, a fellow at the Center for Civic Education and Democracy in Manila.

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