ASIA/PHILIPPINES - “The country needs a new era of peace and stability”: a local Missionary takes a look at the social and political scenario on the eve of May 10 elections

Thursday, 6 May 2004

Roma (Agenzia Fides) - Re-launch the economy, work for political and social unity, bring to conclusion the peace process undertaken with rebel groups. These are the main challenges which face the new President of the Philippines to be elected by the people on May 10. Father Eliseo Mercado, a member of the Oblate Missionaries of Immaculate Mary, OMI and head of the OMI international office for justice and peace told Fides about the situation on the eve of the vote. For many years Father Mercado taught at Notre Dame University in Cotabato, Mindanao, so he is an eyewitness and an expert on the past 30 years of conflict with Muslim separatists in southern Philippines.
“The first challenge for the new President will be to develop the economy - Father Mercado told Fides. The country is helped enormously by 6 billion dollars sent home every year from 8 million Filipinos working overseas. But it cannot simply rely on this money: a boost must be given to the country’s economy, productivity, and trade to help it to become self-supporting”.
“The second challenge - the missionary said - is to promote reconciliation to restore national unity in a fragmented and restless social and political scenario. It is necessary to rebuild a sense of national unity at least on major matters which regard common interests. The third challenge is to bring to conclusion the peace process undertaken with movements fighting the government: pro-Communist rebels, Muslim separatist movements in the south. Since a cease fire was agreed in July 2003 the problem has become political and every move is conditioned by fear of losing popular consensus. But with a new president, elected by the people for a six year term, there is more chance that the peace process will be concluded”.
With regard to the five candidates Father Mercado said: “According to surveys outgoing President Gloria Arroyo, has regained popular consensus, which up to a week ago appeared to favour the main opposition film actor Fernando Poe. The President has won the support of two important religious groups and made a leap forward . The Iglesia ni Kristo, sect with more than one million members and El Shaddai Catholic charismatic movement with more than 2 million members. Moreover the opposition is divided and this is to Arroyo’s advantage. Among the other candidates to presidency the most accredited are actor Fernando Poe and senator Panfilo Lacson. Poe in particular would appear to keep up with Arroyo, because of his popularity with the crowds. He has based his electoral campaign on promises to provide assistance for the poor, the excluded and disinherited. Arroyo, instead has promised to work for economic development by strengthening the market economy”.
The situation in the southern Philippines where most of the country’s Muslims live, requires separate attention Father Mercado told Fides “On Mindanao the situation is complex. The Muslim minority, about 5 million, will follow Poe openly supported by the local Muslim leaders. However Muslim guerrilla movements have declared their neutrality, and many politicians are either linked to former President Estrada or have given their support to Arroyo, like the mayor of Davao and the governor of Cotabato”.
One of the most important aspects of this election, the missionary recalled, will be the votes from citizens overseas: “For this first time overseas workers registered at embassies may vote. It is expected that out of 8 million (24,000 in Italy) only 500,000 Filipinos abroad will vote, a small percentage due mainly to lack of education to voting”.
“Naturally the Church has not taken sides - Father Mercado concluded - but it has offered general guidelines and criteria, calling on people to vote for honest candidates committed to eliminating corruption and working for the common good at the service of the country. Many Catholics, in any case, will support Gloria Arroyo who has always heeded the voice of the Bishops and is seen as true ‘daughter of the Church’. I hope and pray the elections will herald a new era of peace and stability in the country”.
(PA) (Fides Service 6/5/2004 lines 63 words 756 )