By Gina Mission, Philippines

Quirina Tablo, a 65-year-old mother of nine from Manila, has seldom missed voting in an election. But her candidates of preference have always been men because she believes that "politics is not for women." Although there are several women running in May elections -- including two of 11 presidential candidates -- this year will be no different.

Tablo's comments are typical among women here. Since receiving the right to vote in 1933, Filipino women have always been an important electoral force. In the 1992 elections, a whopping 84 percent of the 12.1 million eligible female voters cast ballots, compared to only 60 percent of male voters. Turnout among women next month is likely to be just as high. But Corazon Aquino's presidency during the 1980's notwithstanding, this high female voter turnout has not translated into electing female candidates.

"Women have come to believe that they are not capable of [advancement]. We are sometimes our worst enemy," remarked Haydee Yorac, former chairperson of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and a Senatorial candidate.

Both female presidential candidates -- Mirriam Defensor Santiago and Imelda Romualdez Marcos -- are lagging far behind their competitors. Santiago almost beat Fidel Ramos in the 1992 presidential elections, but now ranks sixth in election surveys. A self-styled "terminator" of the corrupt, the 52-year-old is a tough-talking lawyer educated at the University of Michigan in the United States. The quotable insults she spewed against government leaders in her Ilonggo (native tongue) accented American English enamored her to youth and urban middle class voters six years ago. But things have changed since then. When she clinched a slot in the Senate in 1995, Santiago promised to be "Ramos' permanent migraine." Many people had anticipated she would have stirred things up in the Senate, considered a "haven of narcoleptics." However, she has not lived up to expectations. Senate watchers who frequent the chamber's session say even her colleagues do not seem to "take her seriously enough."

Now she is back in the presidential race with the very party that almost made her the nation's second female president, the People's Reform Party, offering the same promises as in 1992 -- economic liberalization and a graft-and-corruption-free government. But it's not working with the voters.

"Santiago's disadvantage is that she's not really an organization person. She's a great media presence but has difficulty attracting allies," said political analyst Alex Magno.

The other female candidate, Marcos, is perhaps the Philippines' most infamous woman. She and her husband, Ferdinand, ruled the country with an iron fist for 21 years. Imelda was best known for her extravagant spending. In 1986, a people's power movement known as the EDSA Revolution threw them out and the Marcoses fled to the United States, where Ferdinand later died of cancer. His widow returned home. Many here were stunned by Marcos' late entry into the political arena since she is not only widely despised, but has also been convicted by the Philippine Supreme Court of graft. Her appeal to have her 12-year sentence overturned is now being considered. Marcos filed her candidacy under her late husband's political party, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement), but is not backed by any political machinery, making victory unlikely. She promises, if elected, to regain her husband's honour and "to continue serving the Filipinos," as she did when she was the First Lady.

To the disappointment of women's groups, both Santiago and Marcos have never seriously taken up the cudgels for gender issues, even during the former's stint as a Senator. Marcos, of course, was busy buying shoes when she was First Lady. Santiago, observers say, has ignored feminist causes and seems to be more determined to make it in the male world of politics. Marcos' concern is for protecting the family's Swiss bank account.

Nor are the two now targeting female voters. When the Philippine government celebrated International Women's Day on March 8 with the theme "Women's Agenda + Women's Vote = Women Power," presidential candidates were invited to present their agenda for women. Neither female candidate bothered to show up. Several of the male candidates did though, including Senator Raul Roco, named an "honorary woman" by women's groups for authoring legislation against sexual harassment and rape.

Gabriela, a national coalition of women's groups, said in a press statement that "the real issues affecting women have not been touched by any presidential aspirant, even women candidates who many perceive as promoters of women's rights."

In the vice-presidential race there are two women out of a field of nine: Gloria Arroyo and Irene Santiago (no relation to Mirriam). Arroyo tops election surveys and is backed by the current administration's political party, Lakas-NUCD (National Union of Christian Democrats). However she, like Mirriam Santiago, has never sponsored a pro-woman bill in her two terms in the Senate. Irene Santiago, while popular among women's groups, is a political neophyte who, according to the Philippine newspaper Today columnist Manuel Quezon III, "will never make it."

Feminists however, hope to benefit from a new law, signed in 1995, providing for the election of party list representatives from different sectors. The law mandates that voters elect not only a district representative to Congress, but also a party or sectoral group of their choice. Each party or sector is eligible for a maximum of three seats.

A total 51 of the 250-member House of Representatives will be elected from sectors which are underrepresented in the highest levels of government, including women. To seat one candidate, each sector must get at least two per cent of the total number of votes cast for the party list system.

Several major women's sectoral groups have registered with the Comelec and are fielding their own candidates including: Abanse, Pinay (Advance Filipina), Babayi (Woman in several local dialects), and Kaiba (Different).

The priority issues of these women's groups are the same. They are:

1. A family-living wage and the enactment of laws to protect the interests of workers in the informal sectors, especially women.

2. Laws to protect women from domestic violence, incest and spouse battering, including the establishment of women's crisis centers in all municipalities and cities. Laws against trafficking of women and girls, and monitoring the strict implementation of the law criminalizing mail-order brides.

3. Funds for the establishment of more state-run universities.

4. Special attention to the needs of female migrant workers who often work in jobs that make them especially vulnerable to violence and abuse.

5. Enactment of the Comelec modernization bill which would computerize elections and provide stricter controls against voter fraud.

6. Government enforcement of international agreements, instruments and conventions related to gender equality and equity. Monitor and ensure that international covenants in which the Philippines is a signatory are locally implemented.

7. Passage of legislation ensuring 30 percent gender quota in all levels of decision and policy-making bodies of government.

Activists concede that this list is ambitious, but say that drastic measures are needed in laws protecting women. In the 10th Congress, from July 1995-February 1998, only five pro-women laws were passed out of 283, according to the Center for Legislative Development, a non-governmental organization. This included stricter anti-rape laws and a provision for more generous maternity leave.

Some Filipina female activists believe that seating women in government offices does not immediately create woman-friendly measures, or even good government. Although former President Corazon Aquino's regime was widely popular abroad, her name at home became synonymous with weak rule. She was primarily occupied with pleasing the citizenry and making peace with coup plotters. Some political analysts blame Aquino for the build-up of resistance to another woman president. While gender had nothing to do with Aquino's perceived weakness, Magno says that Mirriam Santiago, for one, is "laboring" under the "attitude that has evolved about the Cory presidency, that it was nice and fluffy but did not do enough."

But Solita Monsod, who served as Aquino's Secretary of the National Economic and Development Agency, says that women in politics make a positive difference in economic performance because as holders of the purse strings in the homes they understand intimately the burden of making both ends meet.

During her days as a Cabinet member, Monsod observed that women were always relegated to the political background. "But when it comes down to the crunch, women are the lifeblood of every major political undertaking. Behind every Cabinet member is a woman who ensures that everything is in its proper order," she maintains.

It is not only women who feel that the Philippines would benefit from more women in office: "We need more women in key elective positions, including Congress and in local governments. Experience has shown that women serve as a moderating influence, and the real good ones have proved to be more decisive, more principled, and less prone to corruption," wrote Today columnist Alvin Capino.

Gina Mission has been writing on women's issues for several years. She is now working in the Manila office of the Women's Feature Service, an international women's wire agency.