METRO MANILA, NOVEMBER 4, 2003  (STAR) Raquel Arcega dismisses with a laugh the chances of next May’s presidential elections being any cleaner or better run than usual.

"Nothing changes," Arcega said as she and hundreds of other hopeful voters spent most of a day queuing in the sun in a vain attempt to register for the poll.

"They do not want to improve it. They want to have a cheating election again," she said.

Elections are typically acrimonious affairs in the country of 82 million, with perennial accusations of cheating as poorly paid officials tally tens of millions of votes by hand.

Results from some districts of the archipelago of 7,100 islands sometimes take weeks to come in.

Shootings are not unusual and vote-buying — with a few small bills or a sack of rice — goes on in many wards.

For more than 50 years, the phrase "guns, goons and gold" has described the rough-and-tumble formula for clinching votes. In a more modern variation, it’s "money, muscle and machinery."

Moves to computerize registration, automate vote-counting and allow overseas Filipinos to cast a ballot for the first time have raised hopes that much of the skullduggery could be eliminated.

Nearly 41 million Filipinos are eligible but with less than seven months to go, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has decided to use vote-counting machines in just 15 areas and only half of two million new voters have been registered.

Just 362,000 of an estimated 7.5 million overseas Filipinos have bothered to sign up.

Comelec has also moved to stop the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), a private watchdog group, from conducting its own election quick-count, breaking 20 years of tradition.

Critics, including Namfrel secretary general Guillermo Luz, say Comelec’s approach to automation and registration has left the door wide open for another flawed poll.

"They have been essentially fooling the public the whole time and we the voters are paying the price because we are about to drive off, possibly, a cliff," Luz, also executive director of the influential Makati Business Club, said recently.

But Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos said the decision not to automate vote counting nationwide was made by politicians and not the poll body.

He said a new satellite system for sending results to Comelec headquarters in seconds should eliminate much of the opportunity for cheating.

"Massive cheating is not in the counting," Abalos said. "Massive cheating is in the substitution of the election returns. Massive cheating is in the consolidation of the results." Risks

Much is at stake.

President Arroyo will try to keep a job thrust on her by the ouster of Joseph Estrada in a military-backed popular revolt in January 2001.

Lined up against her will be opposition politicians backed by poor Filipinos still sympathetic to Estrada. Many question the legitimacy of Mrs. Arroyo’s administration.

Estrada, on trial for corruption, denies any wrongdoing and maintains he is still the country’s legitimate leader.

Accusations of corruption flung at Mrs. Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo or "Mike," and a bitter row over moves to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. have sent the political temperature soaring, unnerving investors and pushing the peso towards historic lows.

Many also fear a less than clean vote could prompt a power grab in a country that has seen a series of attempted military-backed coups and "people power" uprisings since long-ruling strongman Ferdinand Marcos was forced from power in February 1986.

The government put down a mutiny by several hundred disgruntled junior officers in July and the military is still rife with grumbling about corruption and low pay.

"It is critical that the elections be conducted honestly and peacefully and be regarded widely as credible and fair," Cielito Habito, an economist and former economic planning secretary, said at a recent academic forum.

"Any indications to the contrary could fuel renewed adventurism on the part of those who would resort to extra-constitutional means to gain political power."

Arcega and many of the others trying to register on a recent scorching hot day are already deeply cynical about politics but the 30-year-old canteen owner said she would queue up for as long as it took.

"I want to vote for Gloria," she said. "I want her to win."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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