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Ramos Widens Lead in Philippine Election : Vote count: With the Aquino-backed candidate far ahead, a combative opponent vows a hunger strike in protest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve days after ballots were cast, administration candidate Fidel V. Ramos appeared to hold a commanding lead today in the still-unresolved Philippine presidential race, but the tedious count is raising concerns over the integrity of the result.

With 55% of precincts reporting, the West Point-educated former defense secretary had widened his lead to more than 860,000 votes over business tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. and combative anti-graft candidate Miriam Defensor Santiago in the seven-person field. Sen. Joseph Estrada, a former film star, held a strong lead in the separate race for vice president. Vincente Sotto, a professional comedian, continued to top the Senate race.

But in a bizarre bid to dramatize her still-unproven charges that she is being cheated of victory, Santiago announced via fax late Friday that she would check into a Quezon City hospital today to “fast indefinitely, to the death if necessary,” to protest the official count. The former immigration commissioner said she would take only liquids “until the party in power stops the alleged delay and manipulation” of vote tallies.

Santiago announced her fast hours after a “mass demonstration” that she had called outside the official counting hall drew few followers. It was her third poorly attended protest rally this week. Nor did she succeed when she publicly challenged Ramos to a “fistfight” last weekend. The retired general declined, saying, “It would not be fair to fight a lady.”

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According to the authorized but unofficial Media Citizens Quick Count, Ramos had 3.13 million votes. Cojuangco was second with 2.26 million votes, while Santiago followed closely with 2.23 million votes. Her total could surge, because only 20% of precincts have reported in metropolitan Manila, considered her stronghold, but she is unlikely to overtake Ramos’ lead in provincial areas. Final results could take another week or more.

A joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives is scheduled to convene Tuesday, and a 14-member committee will then officially review 93 “certificates of canvass” from provinces and major cities. If all goes well, the full Congress will proclaim the new president and vice president by majority vote before President Corazon Aquino’s government leaves office June 30.

Aquino, who endorsed Ramos as her successor, publicly appealed to the Congress to proclaim the president and vice president “at the earliest time possible” to avoid a political vacuum and a constitutional crisis.

“Through an honest, orderly, peaceful and credible election, democracy was strengthened with the support of all sectors of our society,” Aquino said in a press statement. “Let us not frustrate our people’s efforts by unnecessary delays in the canvass of the votes.”

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Haydee Yorac, a member of the Commission on Elections that is overseeing the count, said that no one has yet presented the commission with solid evidence of systematic fraud at the national level despite the growing chorus of charges from losing candidates.

But the glacially slow manual counting of millions of paper ballots compounds the problems. Raul Locsin, vice chairman of the Quick Count, publicly complained Thursday that deliberate delays by municipal registrars in reporting election results threatened to “frustrate the people’s will.”

Bureaucratic delays, poor communications, computer bugs, blackouts and alleged intimidation have slowed reporting in many areas, while violence or protests have disrupted counting in 40 towns. The reported death toll since the campaign began in January rose Friday to 99.

Whatever the final vote count, Cojuangco has announced that he intends to try to challenge Ramos’ lead in the Congress by presenting proof of fraud and tampering with official tallies.

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Under current projections, Ramos is likely to win less than 25% of the vote, the weakest mandate in Philippine history. He would have to govern with a Congress controlled by his political opponents and with a vice president from another party. Asked if he could unify the fractious country, he paused and then said with a smile, “Most of it.”


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