MANILA, January 28, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - The late Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. reportedly warned that whoever inherited the presidency from Ferdinand Marcos would have a hell of a time trying to clean up the mess of authoritarian rule. Ninoy Aquino probably never even dreamed that he was talking about his wife.

And what difficulties Corazon Aquino went through during her six years at the nationís helm Ė no thanks to Gregorio Honasan and his coup pals, who launched putsch after putsch in a futile attempt to seize power.

A similar warning should be given to whoever is elected president on May 10.

The dollar is weakening everywhere except, it seems, in this country where the peso continues to fall against the greenback. Yesterday Moodyís Investors Service lowered its long-term sovereign ratings for the Philippines, citing poll jitters and the massive fiscal deficit.

Standard and Poorís is expected to follow Moodyís, giving positive ratings to all countries in this part of the world Ė except the Philippines.

Meanwhile fuel prices have jumped and public transport operators are threatening to raise fares. Power rates at least have been frozen, although there will be a problem once blackouts return this summer.

Thereís a water shortage and pork shortage. We canít eat beef because of mad cow disease and chicken because of bird flu, with consumer panic fueled by smuggling at the Batangas port.

We canít even identify the smuggler in Batangas, although there are a lot of thinly veiled insinuations about a guy who gained notoriety during the Estrada administration. The suspected smuggler, now a respectable operator of a supermarket chain, is said to have quickly gotten himself into the good graces of someone very well connected in the Arroyo administration shortly after EDSA II.

Meanwhile, our public school system appears hopeless, with teachers warning that 90 percent of their students are likely to flunk this school year after the passing score was raised by the Department of Education from the current 50 percent. When I was a student, a score of 50 was a joke. Now itís passing grade? Itís enough to make you weep.

Whoever is elected president in May is taking on a monumental headache. Those nuisance candidates who stormed the Commission on Elections main office yesterday, demanding that they be allowed to run, should be grateful that they are being disqualified.

* * *

Not that any nuisance candidate, or even Eddie Gil (who he?) for that matter, stands a chance of winning. Right now, with all the slip-ups of the administration and the perceived harassment Fernando Poe Jr. is receiving, the action king appears to have the best chance of becoming the 15th president of the Philippines.

Thereís a rumor going around that an uncommissioned survey on presidential aspirants conducted by Social Weather Stations showed FPJ with 45 percent, with Raul Roco trailing far behind at second and Sen. Panfilo Lacson ahead by a nose against tail-ender President Arroyo.

Until SWS issues an official statement I wonít believe it, but that figure for FPJ canít be far from the actual one in a genuine survey. FPJ has the same mass base as his friend, deposed President Joseph Estrada. If Erap hasnít lost his support after three years, thatís a solid vote base of about 30 percent. And FPJ is even more popular than Erap.

Too bad for Raul Roco that Filipinos canít care less about the crisis in education, which should be alarming for a thinking electorate. Compared with his rivals for the presidency, education would have been Rocoís forte. How can we ever hope to compete globally when our students are getting by on a passing score of 50 percent?

And too bad for Ping Lacson that the peace and order situation has shown some improvement, with Angelo Reyes getting a handle on the kidnapping problem. Who ever thought Angie Reyes would make a good anti-kidnapping chief? And since heís not running for any public office in May, no one is trying to pull him down in his efforts to do his job well.

Lacson can jump on the smuggling scandal at the Batangas port and promise voters that he alone can discipline smugglers and their coddlers in the Bureau of Customs. But part of the reason smuggling has thrived is because consumers snap up smuggled items, which are generally cheaper than local products. In fact thereís talk that authorities look the other way when it comes to smuggling not only because they profit from it, but also because it helps curb inflation by forcing consumer prices to remain low.

* * *

As for the economy, thatís supposed to be the forte of candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo the economist. Her problem is that she took over the nation during a global economic slowdown. Efforts to turn the economy around were hobbled by the terrorist threat, SARS and our homegrown peace and order problems, apart from genuine destabilization moves against her as well as constant nit-picking by her enemies and the press.

I donít know if US Ambassador (on leave) Francis Ricciardone is singing praises for President Arroyo in Washington, as MalacaŮangís spinmeisters would have us believe. A virtual downgrade of the US Embassy is hardly flattering to the administration in Manila. Ricciardone reportedly used to tell people in Washington that President Arroyo kept flip-flopping on so many issues and left a lot of business unfinished or started a lot of projects that she left hanging. But he would reportedly add that he still considered her the best thing that has happened to the Philippines in a long while.

You canít sell a presidential candidate in this country, however, on that kind of left-handed praise. All that voters will consider come May 10 is whether their lives have improved during three years of President Arroyo, whether their purchasing power has increased (it has shrunk), whether the economy has improved under an economist.

* * *

It would be foolish and dangerous though for anyone to underestimate candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who always does her best to complement tremendous luck with hard work. For now, however, divine providence does not seem to be smiling on President GMA.

Amid the fall of the peso, administration officials trumpet that the nationís macroeconomic fundamentals remain strong. Try telling that to the masses. With a passing score of 50, most of our students probably canít even spell ma-croeconomic.

Try telling them that FPJís candidacy is to blame for Moodyís downgrade. Their reply is bound to be: So whoís Moody?

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved