MALABON, Philippines — Moving through this slum suburb of Manila in her air-conditioned campaign van, Tessie Aquino Oreta was trying to explain to a visitor why she has such an enormous advantage in Monday's congressional election.
"It's so hard to translate into English, because it is so deep in our culture," said Oreta, who is seeking office for the first time. "But in our language we have a word, mabango. Literally, it means 'good-smelling.' But in politics, it means so much more.
"If, for example, you are from the right family, your name alone makes you mabanguhan . You smell better to the people. So, for me, it really all boils down to the name--Aquino."
At 42, Tessie Aquino Oreta has what might be called double-mabango. She is the youngest sister of a martyr, the slain Benigno S. Aquino Jr., and the sister-in-law of President Corazon Aquino.
Despite her lack of experience, chances are that Oreta will easily defeat her eight opponents for one of the 200 seats in the House of Representatives.
In a nation where politics is traditionally a family affair, no fewer than half a dozen close relatives of President Aquino are expected to win in the elections the president calls the first free and honest Philippine balloting in nearly two decades.
The president and her aides say they hope the elections will be a landmark--proof that the voters' political consciousness is expanding. But in assessing Aquino's slate of candidates for the House and the 24-member Senate, opponents charge that the electoral process is beginning to resemble the feudal, personality-oriented politics of the past.
"It's dynasty-building, pure and simple," said Leandro Alejandro, a 26-year-old leftist street activist who is among Oreta's opponents for the Malabon seat. "And it's no different than the Marcos era. In fact, in some ways it's worse."
Fifteen months after the corrupt and authoritarian President Ferdinand E. Marcos was overthrown and dozens of his relatives and cronies were driven into exile, Alejandro and other critics warn that Aquino and her family are emulating Marcos' brand of family politics.
Ingrained in Culture
The system is as deeply ingrained in the clannish culture of the Philippines as is the Pilipino language. Even the opposition's public opinion polls suggest that the president's relatives, riding on a wave of mabango, will win easily.
"It's a system that cannot be changed overnight," said Paul Aquino, the Aquino administration's campaign director. "And for the time being, we have to work within that system."
According to Paul Aquino and other presidential aides, the president needs legislators she can trust in this unstable time, and few are more trustworthy than members of her family.
Paul Aquino, 43, is a brother-in-law of the president, a shrewd, street-wise computer whiz who has been acting behind the scenes as referee, coach and overall manager for a slate that includes siblings, in-laws, cousins and uncles.
In addition to the campaign of his younger sister, Tessie, who is the youngest member of the Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino clan, Paul has been running the senatorial campaign of his elder brother, Agapito, a movie actor known as "Butz" who is expected to receive more votes than any of the 84 other candidates for the Senate.
Agapito Aquino is the only presidential relative among the Senate aspirants. Of the candidates for the House, President Aquino's brother, Jose (Peping) Cojuangco, is running with only token opposition for one of the two seats in the president's home province of Tarlac; and Herminio Aquino, an uncle of the president's late husband, is expected to win the other seat.
Members of the Cojuangco clan--Cojuangco was the president's maiden name--are also regarded as almost certain to win control of the wealthy and vote-rich province of Rizal just east of Manila. Two presidential cousins, Emigdio Tanjuatco Jr. and Francisco Sumulong, are favored to win the province's two House seats.
The importance of family ties extends beyond the president. Another top Senate candidate on the administration slate is Leticia Ramos Shahani, the sister of Aquino's military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos.
The president herself has tried not to show favoritism for candidates related to her. Over the past month or so she has campaigned for all 24 administration Senate candidates, introducing each beneath a banner bearing the words Cory's Candidate.
She has virtually ignored the House campaign, leaving it to her brother-in-law strategist and the candidates themselves--with a prominent exception, her sister-in-law Tessie's campaign.
Wednesday night, at a rally the Filipinos call the miting de avance , the president appeared on Tessie's behalf. It was the only time during the 45-day campaign that the president has stumped for a congressional candidate.
Asked whether her personal relationship with the president will help as much as her name, Tessie said, "Definitely."