MANILA,  May 12, 2004
President Arroyo is likely to have defeated her strongest rival Fernando Poe Jr. by eight percentage points in last Monday’s election, according to Social Weather Stations (SWS) in its exit poll results released yesterday.

The SWS exit poll showed Mrs. Arroyo taking 40.84 percent of the votes cast nationwide as against 32.26 percent for Poe, standard-bearer of the opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP).

In the same survey, independent presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson placed third, securing nine percent of the votes, followed by former education secretary Raul Roco with 5.09 percent and evangelist Eddie Villanueva close behind with 5.05 percent.

About 7.7 percent of the 4,627 respondents who had just cast their ballots on election day refused to say who they voted for.

The poll said 81.5 percent of the country’s 43.5 million voters took part in the elections, giving Mrs. Arroyo a margin of victory of over three million votes.

The same exit poll showed administration candidate Sen. Noli de Castro garnering 46.56 percent of the votes cast for the vice presidential race, against the KNP’s Sen. Loren Legarda, who garnered 38.68 percent.

Roco’s running mate in Alyansa ng Pag-asa, former Tarlac congressman Herminio Aquino, got 3.26 percent while independent candidate Rodolfo Pajo notched 0.23 percent.

A substantial 11.27 percent of the respondents would not reveal their choice for vice president.

Mrs. Arroyo’s margin of victory was slightly higher than in pre-election surveys by SWS and Pulse Asia, the country’s other major pollster.

An earlier SWS exit survey of 528 respondents out of the 5.5 million voters in Metro Manila had shown Mrs. Arroyo with an eight-point lead. That poll had a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Poe expressed surprise that he was trailing Arroyo by eight points in Metro Manila, where 5.5 million voters make up 13 percent of the total and offered the actor a large chunk of his mass base.

The nationwide exit poll tally made by the SWS, however, showed Mrs. Arroyo getting the highest voting percentage in Central Visayas or Region 7 with 74.35 percent while Poe settled for only 11.97 percent.

The President got low numbers in the Southern Tagalog and Bicol regions with 24.13 and 24.26 percent, respectively.

Poe, meanwhile, led in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with 45.81 percent. Mrs. Arroyo trailed Poe at 40.74.

On the other hand, Lacson performed best in Southern Tagalog or Region 4 with 14.39 percent.

Roco, as expected, got 31.69 percent from the Bicol Region while Villanueva got 10 percent from the National Capital Region (NCR).

Villanueva only got 5.93 percent from Central Luzon, which included his hometown of Bocaue, Bulacan.

In the vice presidential race, De Castro obtained the highest approval rating from Caraga region with 67.70 percent while Legarda got her best vote from Southern Tagalog with 51.58 percent.

Aquino, on the other hand, got his highest vote at 10.43 percent in Bicol, where Pajo had 0.64 percent after getting zero from eight regions.

Respondents who gave no answer to the presidential contenders were the highest in the Bicol region with 13.89 percent. Likewise, the region also gave the highest number of non-respondents on the vice presidential voting with 17.96 percent.

Credible Mandate

SWS president Mahar Mangahas explained the exit polls were culled out from 4,627 respondents who had cast their votes last Monday.

He admitted the pattern in which Mrs. Arroyo is leading in the Visayas and Mindanao regions is "much too large" even with Poe getting the votes from Luzon.

He said "the fight between Luzon (for Poe) and Visayas and Mindanao where GMA (Mrs. Arroyo’s initials) leading" turned out to be a regional contest between the Tagalogs and Ilocanos for Poe as against the Cebuanos and Ilonggos for Mrs. Arroyo.

Mangahas also pointed out that voters from Luzon gave preference to Legarda in the vice presidential race as against De Castro.

But De Castro, Mangahas said, rallied by reaping the votes in Mindanao and the Visayas.

In an interview with ABS-CBN’s "Dong Puno Live" television program, Mangahas also presented Mercy Abad, head of the NFO Trends which conducted the interviews for surveys designed for Pulse Asia and the SWS.

Abad pointed out during the program the methods they used in culling the exit poll results from the respondents nationwide.

At the same time, Abad challenged critics to prove their accusations that they are manipulating the results to favor certain candidates.

Analysts said that if the exit poll results were borne out in the final count — not expected for nearly a month — then Mrs. Arroyo would have a clear mandate to govern a country split by an acrimonious campaign.

"That’s a mandate," said Antonio Gatmaitan, head of the Political Economy Applied Research Foundation, describing the SWS exit poll as "very credible."

Independent poll watchdog National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), which traditionally gives an accurate picture of the official tally, also released initial results showing Mrs. Arroyo with a slim lead over Poe.

More comprehensive Namfrel numbers were expected later in the day but the poll watchdog said incomplete registration lists may have deprived at least two million people of the chance to vote.

Television ABS-CBN said its unofficial count of almost 1.6 million votes showed Mrs. Arroyo with 36.5 percent, compared with 34.9 percent for Poe.

Two separate exit polls on Monday by a radio and another television station also showed Mrs. Arroyo with leads of a few points over Poe.

But Poe’s camp predicted an "overwhelming victory" just hours after Monday’s polling, which claims the administration dismissed as meaningless as the nation settled in for a drawn-out hand count of paper ballots expected to take weeks.

Administration lawmakers predicted a victory for Mrs. Arroyo along with her running mate De Castro.

"The administration coalition’s victory validates the findings of pre-election surveys that the President will win the race. The elections have given Mindanaoans an opportunity to express their gratitude and appreciation for her accomplishments in the region," said Zamboanga del Sur Rep. Isidro Real.

Real claimed he won in Pagadian City and in all towns in the second district of Zamboanga del Sur while Mrs. Arroyo is way ahead of Poe.

Iloilo Rep. Augusto Syjuco said Mrs. Arroyo is leading by 70 percent of the votes in his district. "All the others have only single-digit votes. Our common goal was the victory of the President to ensure the continuity of her pro-people programs," he said.

Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles also claimed Mrs. Arroyo is way ahead of her main contender in Region 10, including Davao City itself, with 25,045 votes for the President and 23,154 for Poe.

Lakas district chairman for Cebu Rep. Antonio Cuenco said Mrs. Arroyo and De Castro lead "by a mile."

"We are gratified by the President and Senator De Castro’s winning streak. We have always believed that they will prevail in Cebu City."

Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers said the results are expected. He added only one opposition senatorial bet won in their district. "This has proven the winnability of the administration coalition," he said.

Lawmakers said Mrs. Arroyo’s current lead in Metro Manila and the Visayas would contribute largely to her overall victory since the two regions are vote-rich areas in the country with more than 12 million registered voters.

Bacolod City Rep. Monico Puentevella said Mrs. Arroyo’s lead in the Visayas region will be a big factor in her victory since two regions — Western and Central Visayas — are considered the 4th and 5th vote-rich regions in the country.

"Her victory in the Visayas which had been indicated in the latest quick poll counts is in sight," Puentevella said, citing the ABS-CBN partial unofficial quick count.

Puentebella said Mrs. Arroyo’s lead in the region validates the recent SWS survey that she will win in the elections.

Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano said Mrs. Arroyo’s lead in Metro Manila would seal her overall win in the vote-rich region.

Remain Vigilant

Despite her lead, Mrs. Arroyo urged her supporters to remain "vigilant until the last vote is counted."

In a statement, Mrs. Arroyo said she would accept the final results "with prudence, sobriety and respect for the democratic process."

Some precinct workers tallied votes by candlelight following power cuts, and it was not yet known how many of the 43 million eligible voters had turned out.

A top election official said the turnout appeared "relatively moderate" and some media were calling the race a dead heat.

Poe’s camp has claimed early results showed him with a commanding lead of about 20 percentage points. "We are looking at an impending overwhelming victory," said Poe’s personal campaign manager Sen. Vicente Sotto III.

But it seemed possible Poe’s side was making that claim to provide ammunition for any challenge to an Arroyo victory.

Analysts said either a narrow victory or a landslide for Mrs. Arroyo would present political risks, with a huge win not seen as credible.

"Gloria seems to be on track to winning, but I got a report just this morning (yesterday) that two of her allies switched to Fernando Poe at the last minute," Gatmaitan said, referring to the supposed transfer of support by two governors.

Local politics is crucial in the Philippines, where candidates at the national level need the grassroots support commanded by powerful political clans.

Despite 114 election-related deaths since December, the military said the election was generally peaceful with no sign of feared attacks by al Qaeda-linked rebels or plots to disrupt the vote.

The race for 12 Senate seats is also crucial to Mrs. Arroyo in clearing a logjam of reform bills and even the 2004 budget, and she could struggle to win a majority in Congress.

Mrs. Arroyo, 57, had the backing of big business, charismatic Christian groups and much of the political elite as she campaigned largely on her track record and Poe’s inexperience. - With Delon Porcalla, Jose Rodel Clapano, Ding Cervantes, Benjie Villa

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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