The Iglesia, literally Church of Christ, has in the waning days of the campaign reportedly distributed sample ballots to its voting members, estimated to number at least a million, instructing them to choose President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Her main rival Fernando Poe had been courting the Iglesia voters because their total is roughly equivalent to the theoretical number of votes that the movie star needs to catch up with Macapgal-Arroyo, based on the results of the latest opinion surveys, which have him trailing the incumbent by 4.5 percentage points.
Ms Macapagal-Arroyo describes herself as “a good customer of Iglesia ni Cristo” and says she consults with its reclusive chief minister, Erano Manalo, whenever she has problems.
She says the sect helped her top the senatorial elections in 1995 and win the vice presidency in 1998.
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Manila-based political risk consultant Jose Leviste of Polistrat International described Manalo as “one of the three most important people” in this year’s balloting — the others being election commissioner Benjamin Abalos and brewing tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco, who heads the swing Nationalist People’s Coalition party.
“They are a disciplined minority and they are always stronger than the undisciplined majority of the Catholic Church,” said Leviste, who said Catholics by contrast tended to vote according to their own conscience.
“There is a political as well as a theological reason” to the Iglesia’s bloc-voting, he said. Being a minority sect in a Catholic nation with a rebellious Muslim minority, “this is their insurance against persecution.”
The sect was founded in 1914 by its current leader’s father Felix Manalo, a disaffected former member of the Seventh Day Adventists.
Recruiting mostly from the working classes, the sect has several million adherents and has even expanded abroad, spread by the country’s large overseas work force.
By some accounts, it is now the second largest formal religion in the Philippines, a former Spanish and US colony, after Catholicism.
Discipline and conservatism define the sect. Attendance is compulsory at twice-weekly masses inside its distinctive and brightly lit spire-topped churches, where the women sit apart from the men.
Part of every member’s income goes to tithes. Dancing is prohibited, along with eating animal blood.
Iglesia spokesmen have said the sect provides “guidance” to its voters, in line with the sect’s belief that its chief minister is authorized by God to interpret the teachings of the Bible in contemporary times.
Manila pollster Mahar Mangahas of Social Weather Stations said that despite the bloc-vote weapon, the Iglesia’s recent election record is mixed. However, its support has been decisive in close contests.
It backed the wrong horse — the brewer Cojuangco — in the 1992 presidential vote narrowly won by former general Fidel Ramos, who became the country’s first Protestant president.
In 1998 the sect helped Joseph Estrada, another movie actor and Poe’s best friend, take the largest winning margin ever in a presidential contest.
Antonio Gatmaitan, an election strategist with the Political Economy Applied Research think-tank, said there are easily identifiable Iglesia precincts in the main cities of Manila and Cebu, where its preferred candidates get “what you call a pure vote.”
Because of the sect’s decisive influence in local political contests, Gatmaitan said the impact of the Iglesia vote is magnified in elections for national posts — even though they make up a small portion of some 43 million registered voters.
If Poe fails to get the sect’s backing then “it’s Arroyo who is going to win,” Gatmaitan said.