MANILA -- Blame it on the "silly season" of the Philippines' current, seemingly endless political campaign. Or perhaps the excruciating tension as candidates and voters await the result of an eternal vote count. Or maybe it's the recurring 12-hour power failures that have struck Manila and other areas of the country at the height of the hot season.
Whatever the reason, as vote tallying and legal haggling go on at a snail's pace three weeks after the May 11 elections, the attention of Filipinos has turned to other matters great and small, real or imagined.
First, a manananggal, a baby-devouring vampire, shoved politicians off the front pages of Manila's tabloids by supposedly terrorizing poor neighborhoods in the teeming capital. Then came the case of "Carlo, the pregnant man," said to be a rare hermaphrodite in the southern Philippines who is expecting a baby in August.
Both are still capturing headlines. But now there is the added attraction of "Number Fever," a promotion by Pepsi-Cola that backfired when thousands of people with "winning" bottle caps nearly rioted at the company's offices and bottling plants to demand their prizes.
The election has become something of a sideshow, but one that promises plenty of entertainment. The leader in the presidential race is Fidel Ramos, a no-nonsense West Point graduate, ex-general, former armed forces chief and defense secretary. But his odd-couple vice president, who ran on another ticket, is almost certain to be Joseph Estrada, a former matinee movie idol sometimes referred to as the Ronald Reagan of the Philippines.
Estrada, 55, has never been known for intellectual prowess, and his occasional malapropisms have long been fodder for political jokes. One recent political cartoon showed him exclaiming, "See, I told you guys I was gonna win by a landscape." But although his waistline has expanded since his cinema salad days, his droopy-eyed gaze, pompadour hairstyle, pencil-thin moustache and screen persona of the crusading underdog still reel in the voters.
The Senate also should be good for a few laughs, especially since the leading vote-getter is a former slapstick comedian and television personality, Vicente Sotto. Running second in the nationwide balloting for senator -- the top 24 get elected -- is an action-movie star, Ramon Revilla, who commonly plays mystical, bulletproof characters protected by amulets known as anting-anting.
Voters, meanwhile, have been relying on cloves of garlic, clubs and crucifixes to ward off the dreaded manananggal, a vampire that is said to occupy the body of an old woman by day and split in two at night. According to the widely believed legend, the top half flies around at night in search of prey. At dawn, the vampire is said to reunite with the rest of its body and blend in again with the populace.
Since the first alleged sightings of the creature in April in a Manila slum, groups of men have searched for it armed with knives, metal pipes and bamboo staves. Some have cut down fruit trees to deny it a hiding place, and women have hung garlic around their sleeping babies. Now the panic has spread to other Manila neighborhoods and provincial cities.
Some pundits explain the phenomenon as a popular response to political tensions brought on by the elections and the tedious vote count. Anthropologist Raul Pertierra told a newspaper that the manananggal "allows the Filipino to communicate and express the state of fear, anxiety or apprehension felt during times of personal or communal stress."
Another flurry of stories has been generated by Edwin Bayron, a hermaphrodite better known as "Carlo," in Bukidnon Province in the southern Philippines. The 32-year-old nurse and midwife was born with both male and female sex organs, but was raised as a boy and is still legally registered as a male. In 1985, Bayron was surgically "renovated" as a female by a British doctor and began menstruating after hormone treatments, according to medical records cited in press reports.
An ultrasound test showed the short, stocky nurse to be six months pregnant with a healthy male fetus, Bayron has told reporters. Clarita Paggao, a doctor at the Bukidnon Provincial Hospital, has confirmed the pregnancy. "I feel proud that I'm going to be the mother of a baby boy," Bayron told the Reuter news agency. "Now I can prove to the world that I'm really a woman." The father is said to be a 21-year-old soldier who has been living with Bayron.
In Manila, Pepsi-Cola's "Number Fever" promotional game got people worked up even more than the daily power failures, euphemistically called "brownouts." The company announced a winning bottle-cap number, 349, that was supposed to be worth prizes of up to $38,000.
More than 5,000 people claimed the prizes, only to be told that their bottle caps with 349 on them also had to carry an undisclosed "security code." Pepsi offered to pay consolation prizes of about $19 to "349" bottle-cap holders, but many threatened to go to court, and thousands protested at Pepsi sites. The company estimated that at least 500,000 bottle caps had been printed with the number 349.
More than 4,000 people filed complaints with the National Police. Others said they will march on Congress to demand an investigation. Consumer groups threatened a boycott. A newly formed "Coalition 349" said it will file charges of false advertising and fraud.
"From the 349 experience," a spokesman for the group predicted, "a militant consumers movement will rise."