MANILA, December11, 2003  (STAR) President Arroyo will be an unlikely underdog when the Philippine election season officially begins next week with at least three challengers registering their candidacies alongside hers.

The 56-year-old grandmother trails in opinion polls with movie icon Fernando Poe Jr. on top, five months before the May 11, 2004 contest.

Mrs. Arroyo’s aides said better economic growth, a divided opposition and police success in destroying kidnap gangs preying on businessmen would help her overhaul film star Poe, the Philippine answer to "John Wayne" and better known as just "FPJ."

Another contender, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief, refuses to back Poe despite having fallen far behind in the surveys.

Then Vice President Arroyo replaced movie star President Joseph Estrada after a military-backed popular revolt in January 2001.

She survived a military rebellion in July, the lowest point in a troubled interim leadership where significant numbers of Filipinos refused to recognize her as president.

Mrs. Arroyo has staked her political future on helping the United States in its global war on terror, as well as on market reforms to revive an economy that drifted during Estrada’s unorthodox rule.

Forty million Filipinos, hundreds of thousands of them working abroad, could vote in the elections, in which Mrs. Arroyo will seek a full six-year term.

It will be the first presidential contest since the 1997-1998 Asian crisis, when an embittered urban underclass swept college dropout Estrada to power.

For the first time, computers will count votes, replacing a cumbersome manual system with high hopes it will stifle fraud and violence.

Like his friend Estrada, Poe is popular among the poor who make up the majority of Filipinos. But the prospect of a second movie star president has rattled financial markets.

Vice President Teofisto Guingona insists Poe, a political neophyte and also a high school droput, may surprise critics as long as he avoids the bum advice that doomed Estrada, now on trial for corruption.

"FPJ has this election won unless he finds a way to lose it," said former senator and Estrada spokesman Ernesto Maceda.

He urged Poe to avoid becoming over-confident and to build a party machinery and explain his political platform to investors.

Comparing voting to baking a cake, pollster Mahar Mangahas of Social Weather Stations cautions that voters "are still mixing the dough" and Poe’s support remains soft.

The electorate will make up their mind in early May, he added.

"There will be so much time left for people to put together better campaigns, more efficient ways of dealing with how to get the electorate to see their principle as the better one," agreed pollster Felipe Miranda of Pulse Asia Inc.

"The administration cannot be taken for granted because it has the preponderance of resources and government infrastructure to help in its campaign," said veteran election strategist Tony Gatmaitan.

The registration of candidates will be from Dec. 15 to Jan. 2 but campaigning is allowed only from February.

Mrs. Arroyo has made almost daily provincial sorties, speaking to large crowds since October, when she changed her mind about retiring next year.

Victory would give her six more years to solve sprawling poverty, decades-old Muslim separatist and communist insurgencies, and the new threat of terrorism.

Another serious contender with the potential to hobble Mrss. Arroyo’s bid is former education secretary Raul Roco. He quit the Arroyo Cabinet last year after rejecting corruption allegations.

Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesman Alex Magno said the President and Roco are "headstrong personalities with little love lost for each other.

"It will be a tough challenge to convince one to yield to the other – even if we plead the survival of a modernizing sort of democracy for our country," he said. — AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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