Growing protests over alleged cheating and inexplicably slow counting of Monday's election returns threatened to worsen into political instability after a leading presidential candidate called Friday for street protests in major Philippine cities and a political opponent warned of "civil war."
Declaring "wholesale election fraud" in the seesawing tallies but presenting no evidence, pugnacious populist Miriam Defensor Santiago warned that she will begin leading mass demonstrations today in cities around the country "to defend democracy" and protect what she insists is her "conclusive" victory.
Shouting and appearing distraught in a rambling press conference, Santiago angrily implied that her chief rival in the still-inconclusive election returns, former Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos, was using the delays to rig counting in "an attempted rape of the democratic process."
"What is his capacity for predicting the future unless he has already designed the future?" she demanded. Her own victory was certain through "the sheer application of logic and reason," she repeatedly insisted, because she led pre-election popularity polls as well as the first four days of election returns. "It is impossible that I should lose on the last day," she said. She refused to take questions.
Speaking later to reporters, Ramos' spokesman, Rafael Alunan, denounced Santiago's call for civil disobedience as "very dangerous and incendiary."
"She wants to be proclaimed president ahead of time," he added. "And she won't take no for an answer. And that's dangerous. . . . This thing could just erupt into ugly violence.
"We can't fool around with civil war here," Alunan warned. "We can't fool around with anarchy. The life of the nation is at stake."
"My advice to Mrs. Santiago is to be sober, be calm, not to be hysterical," Alunan said. "It's too early to crack up."
Santiago's complaint also was condemned by officials from COMELEC, the national commission on elections, and by outgoing President Corazon Aquino, who has backed Ramos' presidential bid. Ironically, Aquino took office in 1986 after fraud-marred snap elections led to mass "people power" protests that eventually toppled dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.
"We're calling for a return to sanity," said Aquino's spokesman, Horacio Paredes. Santiago, he said, is "playing with fire. But hopefully, the ones who play will be burned."
The credibility of the relatively peaceful national and local elections already has suffered as manual counting has dragged on at precinct, municipal, provincial and national levels. Only 11% of the more than 26 million votes cast had been officially released by late Friday, and final results are not expected before next week.
With seven candidates in the presidential race, Friday's returns showed that Ramos had overtaken Santiago for the first time by 620,444 votes to 592,438 votes. Trailing in third place was former Marcos crony Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. with 411,465 votes. A Cojuangco spokesman said, however, that a tally by his campaign staff showed that he had moved into first place.
Computer malfunctions, electrical blackouts and poor planning and communications all contributed to the nightmarishly slow pace of counting. So did mass confusion in the so-called Media Citizens' Quick Count, the only private group authorized to report returns. The group appealed for computers and donations and refused access to foreign news organizations unless they paid $5,000 each.
A 19-member team of international observers announced Friday that Monday's election "cannot be considered clean and honest" because of irregularities, including drunken election officials, illegally opened ballot boxes, death threats against candidates, vote-buying at $4 apiece, improper campaigning and other infractions. The group, which visited four rural provinces Monday, was led by Anthony Joseph Wilson of Britain and included members of Western church and labor groups.
Most of the reported cheating was in some of the 17,000 local races. Election officials insisted that only scattered cheating so far had been proved and that no evidence had yet surfaced of massive fraud. Armed troops were deployed outside election offices in four provincial towns and two Manila suburbs after angry mobs gathered to protest delays or alleged tampering.
Losers rarely concede in Philippine politics, and it remains to be seen how many people will respond to Santiago's call. She said she would lead a protest tonight in Iloilo, her hometown 265 miles south of Manila and a stronghold of her supporters, before moving on to other cities. "We shall keep this up for as long as it takes," she said.
"We're going to try to prove the Filipino people will not accept any result other than I am the winner on the last day of counting," she said.
She called for prayer vigils against electoral fraud, a 24-hour watch on the canvassing and vigilance against ballot-box switching.
The 46-year-old Santiago, who served as Aquino's secretary of immigration and later of agrarian reform, has been an unpredictable figure throughout this campaign. Although she had little money or organization, her combative speeches drew large, frenzied crowds. She led pre-election polls by declaring a crusade against graft and corruption. Her sharp attacks on her political rivals, and her unusual singsong speaking style, guaranteed her free media exposure.
In a lengthy interview in her suburban Manila home Friday morning, Santiago said her support was like "a tidal wave" that could not be stopped. She criticized Aquino for bringing back the "style but not the substance" of democracy. "President Aquino has an attitudinal problem," she said. "She believes (that) like God, after creating the democracy, she could leave it alone."
Despite her staunch anti-corruption campaign, Santiago said she would welcome Cojuangco and Imelda Marcos, widow of the former dictator, into an inner "council of elders" with the other failed presidential candidates. On Friday, Marcos conceded that she had lost.
If elected, Santiago insists she will try to live in her home, an hour away from Malacanang Palace, and would "go through traffic" on her way to work. "I'd like to go to the grocery and buy a toothpaste when I want," she said. "I'd like to queue up in the grocery store. I'd like to find out if garbage is being collected. As a non-traditional politician, I'd like to lead a revolution in the presidency."