Aquino seen as favorite as Filipinos vote amid fear of fraud, glitch in 1st automated polls

By Hrvoje Hranjski, AP
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Aquino seen as favorite as Filipinos begin voting

MANILA, Philippines — After a decade of corruption-tainted politics, Filipinos stood in long lines Monday to elect a new leader, and surveys indicated they’re pinning their hopes on the son of democracy icons who has electrified masses with his clean image and Aquino family name.

Sen. Benigno Aquino III — whose father was assassinated while opposing a dictatorship and whose late mother led the “people power” revolt that restored freedoms and swept her into power — had a large lead in the last pre-election polls.

The Philippine election has been marred by violence, with more than 30 killed in political attacks and reports of deadly violence the morning of the election. And a software glitch in optical scanning machines that for the first time will count and transmit votes in 17,600 precincts was discovered just days ago, almost derailing the vote.

Aquino himself was unable to immediately cast his ballot Monday after a vote-counting machine broke down in his precinct.

“This is a new system of voting. We have a longer ballot, so I hope all the people can vote and not be delayed and I hope there will be no long lines of people outside when the voting ends,” he told reporters while waiting for the machine to be fixed.

In the past, manual counts in the world’s second-biggest archipelago delayed results for weeks and were prone to fraud. Officials are now expecting early tallies just hours after polls close. About 50 million registered voters in this country of 90 million will elect politicians for posts from the presidency to municipal councils.

Still, Elections Commissioner Rene Sarmiento warned there might be “some flaws and glitches.”

A former election commission chairman, Christian Monsod, said the long lines of voters represent “a celebration of democracy.”

“I was with the Indonesian delegation yesterday and they are here to learn from us because they are also going to automate. I told them you just watch, you watch how our people in elections are going to be disciplined,” he said.

However, violence has long been a feature of Philippine elections, and police said more than 30 people have been killed in campaign-related attacks, including three on Sunday. Police were still trying to determine whether a shootout that left three gunmen dead in southern Zamboanga Sibugay province Monday was election-related.

The official campaign-deaths figure does not include the country’s worst election-related massacre, in which 57 people died last November. Even when those horrific deaths are counted, though, election attacks appear to be down: 130 deaths preceded the 2007 vote.

A restive and politicized military, weak central government, private armies and political dynasties have stymied democratic institutions for generations.

The next leader also will face multiple insurgencies. Muslim and communist rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants have long staged terrorist attacks and hostage raids from jungle hide-outs in the south, where U.S. troops have been training Filipino soldiers.

The next leader also faces entrenched corruption: Outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been accused of vote-rigging in 2004 and implicated in several scandals that led to coup attempts and moves to impeach her. Calls for her prosecution have been an important campaign issue. She denies any wrongdoing and is in running for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Accompanied by her son, Arroyo was among the first voters in her hometown in Pampanga province, north of Manila. Wearing glasses, she held the 25-inch (63- centimeter) -long ballot and picked her choices by shading ovals across the candidates’ names.

In an indication that Filipinos are looking for a fresh face to combat this old problem, Aquino has surged ahead of his two main rivals, according to recent independent presidential surveys.

Despite lacking their experience, Aquino rode on a family name that has revived poignant memories of the 1986 “people power” revolt his late mother led to oust dictator Ferdinand Marcos and restore democracy.

Former President Corazon Aquino had inherited the mantle of her husband, an opposition senator gunned down by soldiers at Manila’s airport in 1983 upon return from U.S. exile to challenge Marcos.

It was only after she died of cancer last August that her son, a quiet 50-year-old lawmaker and bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief and yearning for a kind of inspirational leadership his mother had provided despite her shortcomings.

In an Associated Press interview last week, Aquino said he would start prosecuting corrupt officials within weeks if he’s elected, sending a signal to investors and the public. He said he would create a commission to investigate Arroyo.

Aquino’s two rivals carry the taint of scandal, all too common in the Philippines. The ratings of real estate tycoon Manny Villar, who was neck-and-neck with Aquino in early surveys, took a plunge after

rivals accused him of using his position to enrich himself and avoid a Senate ethics probe.

Meanwhile, ousted President Joseph Estrada, who largely draws support from the poor, has jumped to overtake Villar as No. 2. The former action movie star was removed from office in 2001 and subsequently convicted on corruption charges. He was later pardoned by his nemesis, Arroyo.

Esmael Mangudadatu, whose entourage was targeted in the November massacre, is running for provincial governor of Maguindanao province, undeterred by the attack that claimed the lives of relatives and supporters. He is trying to unseat the rival Ampatuan clan — the principal murder suspects.

Although under arrest, some of the Ampatuans are running in Maguindanao, legally allowed unless they are convicted. They have denied the murder charges.

In a country where celebrities commonly seek office and political dynasties are myriad, the jewel-studded former first lady Imelda Marcos is running for a House seat, as is boxing star Manny Pacquiao in his second congressional bid.

Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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