Despite violence, glitch, polls open in Philippines’ 1st automated vote

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Polls open in Philippines’ 1st automated elections

MANILA, Philippines — Polling stations have opened in the Philippines’ first automated presidential and local elections after a last-minute software glitch and scattered violence that has claimed dozens of lives.

Throughout the archipelago, Filipinos are standing in long lines Monday to cast ballots in 17,600 precincts. About 50 million are electing a new president, vice president and officials to fill nearly 18,000 national and local posts.

Early results are expected within hours of polls closing at 6 p.m. local time.

Opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino III, the son of revered pro-democracy icons, has topped pre-elections surveys in the nine-way race for the presidency.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — After a decade of corruption-tainted politics and untamed poverty, Filipinos choose a new leader Monday and surveys indicate they’re pinning hopes to a son of democracy icons who electrified masses with his family name and clean image.

A software glitch in optical scanning machines that for the first time will count and transmit votes in 17,600 precincts in the world’s second biggest archipelago was discovered just days ago, almost derailing the vote.

In the past, manual counts delayed results for weeks and were prone to fraud; officials are now expecting early tallies just hours after the polling stations close. About 50 million registered voters in this country of 90 million will elect politicians for posts from the presidency to municipal councils.

Officials have suggested that, despite the problems, the scanners are expected to work so well that agitators hoping to disrupt the vote may have resorted to violence.

Violence, however, has long been a feature of Philippine elections, and police said more than 30 people have been killed in campaign-related attacks, the latest three on Sunday. That 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.

Just as violence and fraud threaten the vote, so, too, will they pose substantial challenges to the next leader, in the form of rampant corruption and 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 fact running for a seat in the House of Representatives.

In an indication that Filipinos are looking for a fresh face to combat this old problem, Sen. Benigno Aquino III 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 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 will 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 outgoing 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, and said he ran to clear his name.

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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