A religious sect and a handful of powerful political families could hold the key to the outcome of the Philippine presidential election, where incumbent Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo holds a narrow lead, analysts said.
Ms Macapagal rose nearly four points to lead Fernando Poe, a hugely popular matinee idol with no political experience, by 35.3 percent to 30.8 percent, according to the Manila-based Social Weather Stations’ (SWS) poll of 1,400 likely voters Friday.
With Ms Macapagal ahead by such a narrow margin of the mainly Roman Catholic nation’s 43.3 million-strong electorate, an important player is the Iglesia ni Kristo (Church of Christ), headed by Eranio Manalo.
Wooed by all serious politicians in the Philippines, the Iglesia’s 1.2 million members usually vote as a single bloc for the candidate Manalo endorses — which could be enough to swing the result on May 10.
“The most important voting group in the country is the (Iglesia) because it has a religious voter discipline,” said political risk consultant Jose Leviste of Manila-based Polistrat International.
The sect, which draws its followers mainly from the poorer levels of society, was crucial in delivering victory to deposed president Joseph Estrada in 1998.
“This election will now depend on about 30 political families and the Iglesia factor,” said Antonio Gatmaitan, head of the Manila-based think-tank Political Economy Applied Research.
In each province of the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, powerful families call the political shots through patronage and economic clout, and winning them over could deliver victory to either Arroyo or Poe, he said.
Analysts said top among these power brokers was opposition kingpin Eduardo Cojuangco, chief executive of brewer San Miguel Corp. and leader of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, considered a swing party in this year’s contest.
“I thought the most important political party in the Philippines is (Cojuangco’s party) because it has party discipline,” Polistrat International’s Leviste said.
So far, Cojuangco has stayed neutral — at least in public — after deciding against a run at the presidency.
Gatmaitan said Poe has yet to woo the provincial political clans, who he said are best-placed to deliver the votes of the undecided and the wavering.
“There are no mysteries to these people,” Gatmaitan said. “These are the pros who know how to make a candidate win in their respective places.”
If Poe fails to win over Iglesia ni Kristo and the political clans by the first week of May, then Ms Macapagal will cruise to victory, analysts said.
Reli German, who ran the Estrada campaign, predicted that the Iglesia would watch to see which candidate had the momentum in the final days of the presidential race and then decide whom to back.
The chief of poll company SWS, Mahar Mangahas, said the race was likely to remain tight in the coming weeks as some 31 percent of votes were still wavering.
Ms Macapagal has benefited because of the effective withdrawal of another candidate, Raul Roco, who saw his poll numbers nearly halved to 8.4 percent after he abruptly flew to the United States last week for medical treatment.
“It’s still a very tight race” because Ms Macapagal’s lead is barely above the margin of error for the polls, Mangahas said.