Philippines: Fighting for the migrant vote

When voters in the Philippines go to the polls in May, for the first time hundreds of thousands of overseas workers will have the right to vote - political analysts believe their vote could be crucial.

Many who send money home will have an important influence over the way their dependents back in the Philippines cast their ballot.

One of the most politically active groups of overseas Filipino voters is in Hong Kong where almost 90,000 are registered.

But in the territory there is one domestic helper who is not just a new voter but a candidate in the Philippines congressional elections due to take place alongside the presidential vote.

Connie Bragas-Regalado cleans other people's houses. Like tens of thousands of Filipinos in Hong Kong she works from morning until night, six days a week.

But her days of scrubbing and polishing will soon be over. Connie Bragas-Regalado is almost certain to get elected.

Her party, Migrante, which represents overseas workers has chosen this Hong Kong cleaner to top the party list.

"Now that I have decided to be in Congress there is no change in the time that I wake up. This is harder than doing domestic work because you are responsible for seeing to it that migrant workers in 186 countries are being protected by law," she says.

Rallying ground

Connie campaigns in the centre of Hong Kong every Sunday - the only day off most Filipinos get here.

The Philippines government changed the rules last year, to give overseas workers abroad a vote back home in both the congressional and the presidential elections.

Almost 90,000 of them in Hong Kong have taken up the offer.

So in recent weeks the Philippines president Gloria Arroyo has visited to rally the faithful.

She was followed by another presidential hopeful - Eddie Villanueva.

Political analyst Dr Reuben Mondejar, of Hong Kong's City University, says Hong Kong is an easy to reach campaigning stop for the Philippines political elite.

"Hong Kong is practically an appendage of the Philippines electorate. Because of the geographical proximity to Manila the politicians can easily hop onto a plane and in about half an hour they are in Hong Kong," he says.

"In no other place in the world are Philippine overseas workers as densely packed as they are in Hong Kong."

'Sophisticated' voters

And, by lunchtime on Sunday, you get a real sense of just how many potential voters there are here as they spread out around the squares and shelter from the sun in the underpasses.

Connie's candidacy is big news here.

"This is the first time that we were given the right to vote. The person who is going to represent us is a migrant who has worked as a domestic helper. From her experience, she knows what we are fighting for and what we need," one Filipino worker here told me.

As for the presidential vote, those I spoke to were less forthcoming.

"I'm still thinking about it... Maybe just the present president right now," one woman told me.

Some, like Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan, believe these workers represent a more sophisticated electorate than those back home.

"The overseas Filipino vote could in fact be a middle class vote," he says.

"Voters who have seen how systems work, how governments run effectively in terms of good governance... they will manifest that in terms of their choices for the candidates back home."

As May's elections for the presidency and the congress get closer, the campaigning gets louder.

For Connie Bragas-Regalado this is a once in a lifetime chance to try to change things for the better.

She won't rest until she's sure she's done enough to secure her seat.

By Chris Hogg
BBC Hong Kong correspondent


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