Church looms large in Philippine vote

Manila, Philippines - Political clout wielded by the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines has diminished in recent years but not so much that politicians would risk angering the bishops over issues such as birth control, analysts say.

As the nation prepared to the polls Monday to elect senators, congressmen and thousands of local officials, candidates both from President Gloria Arroyo's party and the opposition had made last-minute efforts to get the nod from the bishops in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

None however managed to get their blessing and the 117-strong Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) instead issued "pastoral letters" calling on its flock to vote wisely and avoid corrupt politicians.

In debates sponsored by local television networks, the crucial issue of birth control remained virtually a landmine to avoid as the bishops closely monitored from their humble office in a former Spanish-era fortress in central Manila.

Earlier in the campaign, the bishops issued a strong statement blasting the contraceptive use as immoral after an independent survey showed modern Filipinos support artificial birth control.

That was enough to stop candidates from including population control in their platforms, even though the country has among the highest population growth rates in the region at about 2.0 percent.

"The candidates are simply afraid to go against the hierarchy of the church," said political analyst Antonio Abaya, of the Foundation for Transparency and Public Accountability.

"They are afraid that if they antagonise the bishops they are going to lose votes," Abaya said.

"But what about the voters? Because they help form national policy, senatorial candidates should be made to state their positions on birth control."

"This will separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Are they prepared to defy the Catholic bishops on this issue? Or are they weak as lambs and soft as putty?" he said.

Abaya says the bishops retain a "moral influence" over Filipinos -- about 85 percent of whom are Catholic -- but are no longer as powerful as in the previous decade, when outspoken Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin was the country's spiritual guide.

Sin, who died of natural causes in 2005, was the paragon of religious might. From his pulpit, he used his fiery rhetoric to summon tens of thousands to the streets to topple the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and the graft-ridden presidency of Joseph Estrada in 2001.

"They are no longer kingmakers," Abaya noted. "But Cardinal Sin still has a carry over effect on the present generation."

Henrietta de Villa, chairwoman of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), said the May 14 mid-term elections were particularly crucial because many see it as a referendum on Arroyo's government.

Arroyo has survived successive impeachment attempts in Congress in the past two years over charges she cheated in the May 2004 vote.

The bishops tempered their support for Arroyo, and called for greater public accountability even as they stopped short from censuring her.

Arroyo however has always taken pains not to antagonise the bishops and even abolished capital punishment that she once promised to rigidly enforce to stem rising crime.

"There has been such a loss in the electoral process that somehow there is a need to bring back credibility again because that is the very basic component of democracy," de Villa told AFP.

De Villa's group, the PPCRV, is a church-based electoral watchdog that is actively campaigning for Filipinos to vote for candidates that would adhere to the church's standards.

Her office planned to field about 500,000 volunteers to ensure clean and honest elections and to distribute leaflets on the "10 commandments of responsible voting."

Among others, they urge voters to shun candidates who lead immoral lives, who use force and money to intimidate and those with known records of graft and corruption.

"There are fixed teachings (of the church) that can never change," no matter how noble the intention is, de Villa said, referring to contraceptives.

While the bishops would never impose on freedom of choice in terms of choosing a candidate, it would never support anyone espousing artificial methods of birth control, de Villa said.

"Elections now have boiled down to money and popularity, but I would like to think that Filipinos are more vigilant now and that the church has helped in that formation," she said.

Candidate Alan Peter Cayetano, who comes from a large political family and is seeking a Senate seat, agrees that the church can prove a formidable opponent, if you get on the wrong side of it.

"Many of the changes instituted in the country are from the church," Cayetano said, acknowledging that the bishops provide "moral guidance."

Media and campaign strategist Reli German noted that in any electoral race, "the rule of thumb is you must not antagonise any sector."

"Specially a sect or a religious organisation that has a large voting block," he said.

"Therefore, it is imperative for anyone seeking office to win them over."

The best way, he said, would be to "go the safe course and go by what the church and state dictate."