Filipinos look set to embrace Aquino's message of hope
Sun, May 09, 2010

MANILA - The Philippines will elect a new president on Monday with voters looking set to embrace sentimental favourite Benigno Aquino's promise to crack down on government corruption and reduce poverty.

The build-up to the elections has been typically tumultuous for one of Asia's most free-wheeling democracies, with dozens of people killed, ferocious mudslinging, technical glitches and dark rumours of illegal power grabs.

But election officials insist all will be ready on Monday morning when polls open and up to 80 percent of the 50 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots using a computerised tallying system for the first time.

Aquino has established a huge lead over his rivals by pledging a new style of clean government following nearly 10 years of rule under President Gloria Arroyo, whose reign has been tainted by allegations of massive graft.

"I had not wished to inherit the problems that were dumped on us by the people who spoilt our dreams," Aquino, a balding 50-year-old bachelor, told thousands of cheering supporters at his final public rally in Manila on Friday.

"The problems before us were caused by people putting their own selfish interests before the common good."

If opinion polls are correct, Filipinos hungry for an end to the corruption that plagues the country are about to give Aquino the biggest win in Philippine election history.

Two major independent surveys released over the past week gave him voter support of between 39 and 42 percent, a two-to-one lead over closest rivals former president Joseph Estrada and property magnate Manny Villar.

The frontrunner is the only son of former president Corazon Aquino and her assassinated husband, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, who are revered by many for spearheading the restoration of Philippine democracy in the 1980s.

Aquino's landowning family is among the interconnected rich clans that have dominated Philippine politics since independence in 1946, but they enjoy an exceptionally clean and honest reputation.

Aquino and his rivals have raised concerns about the credibility of the elections, amid fears of cheating and programming problems with computerised ballot readers that were only discovered at the last minute.

But after a frantic effort to fix the bugs, the stage appears ready for the Filipino national pastime -- elections -- and all its colourful characters.

Among the big names is former movie star Estrada, 73, who was ousted in a 2001 coup and jailed for corruption but then pardoned by Arroyo.

Another is former first lady Imelda Marcos, 80, who gained global notoriety when thousands of her shoes were found in the presidential palace after her late husband Ferdinand's overthrow in 1986.

She is running for a seat in the lower house of the Philippines' US-style Congress, seeking to represent the northern province where her husband was born and remains a popular figure.

World welterweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, 31, is aiming for a similar position in the southern island of Mindanao, where the worst election-related violence has occurred.

Bloodshed has long been part of elections in the gun-crazy Philippines but even the coldest cynics were shaken to the core when 57 people in a convoy, including 31 journalists, were abducted and executed last November.

They were victims of an election power struggle between two Muslim clans in Mindanao.

In the past four months, at least 24 other people have been killed in political violence, all of them outside Manila, police said.

Liquor sales to Filipinos were banned for 48 hours from the stroke of midnight Saturday to reduce the chances of alcohol-fuelled violence, while security forces have set up checkpoints to arrest illegal gun holders.

More than 17,000 positions are at stake, from the president down to municipal council seats, in the single-round election.

Arroyo, who is required by constitutional term limits to step down, is due to hand over power on June 30.

But she is controversially set to remain an influential figure as she is running for a lower house seat representing her home town, a contest she is expected to win.

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