- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2010

UPDATED:

MANILA (AP) — The son of Philippine democracy icons took an early, commanding lead in presidential polls on a promise to begin prosecuting corrupt officials within weeks to restore credibility to the country’s graft-ridden government agencies.

Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III — whose father, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., was assassinated while opposing a dictatorship and whose mother, Corazon Aquino, led the “people power” revolt that restored freedoms — was leading the nine-candidate presidential race with 40.58 percent of the votes from about 57 percent of the precincts, while his closest rival, ousted President Joseph Estrada, had 25.72 percent.

Despite computerized counting machine glitches and violence that claimed at least nine lives, election officials hailed the vote as a success in a country where poll fraud allegations have marred previous contests.

There is no runoff in the Philippines, and whoever has the most votes is declared winner.



Mr. Aquino’s sudden political rise bolstered hopes among his supporters for a clean leadership after nine years of a scandal-tainted administration that was rocked by coup attempts and protests.

He campaigned on a strong anti-graft platform, promised to start prosecuting corrupt officials within weeks of his election and restore integrity to Congress and the judiciary.

It was only after Mr. Aquino’s mother, herself a former president, died of cancer in August that her son, a quiet 50-year-old lawmaker and bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief for the woman who ousted longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 “people power” revolt and restored democracy to the Philippines.

Mr. Aquino’s closest political lieutenant, former Education Secretary Florencio Abad, said he rode on the crest of a national yearning for an honest leader after corruption scandals under outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

“This means he really has to deal with the problem of corruption and deal with the people identified with nine years of corruption,” Mr. Abad told the Associated Press.

“The other thing that he needs to do is to translate the dividends of good governance into direct benefits for the poor — education, health, food, lower prices, jobs, basic services,” he said.

Some of Mr. Aquino’s opponents carried the taint of scandal, all too common in the Philippines. The popularity ratings of Sen. Manny Villar, a real estate developer-turned-politician who was neck and neck with Mr. Aquino in early surveys, plunged after rivals accused him of using his position to enrich himself and avoid a Senate ethics probe.

Mr. Estrada, who draws support largely from the poor, jumped to overtake Mr. Villar as No. 2. Mr. Estrada, a former action-movie star, was removed from office in 2001 and subsequently convicted on corruption charges. He later was pardoned by Mrs. Arroyo and said he decided to run again to clear his name.

Computer problems and campaign-related violence, which has killed more than 30 people in the past three months and an additional nine on election day, were the main concerns in the voting, which officials hope will set a new standard for the country’s fragile democracy.

Turnout was 75 percent among about 50 million eligible voters, the Elections Commission said.

“The people came in droves; the turnout was very encouraging. The machines worked more than we expected,” said commission Chairman Jose Melo. “I would say it was successful.”

For the first time, optical scanning machines counted the votes in 76,000 precincts. A software glitch discovered a week ago nearly derailed the vote. Still, some machines malfunctioned in the tropical humidity, including in Mr. Aquino’s hometown of Tarlac, north of Manila, where the senator had to wait nearly five hours to cast his ballot.

Election Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said that about 465 of 76,000 machines had problems but that most were replaced.

A restive and politicized military, weak central government, private armies and political dynasties have stymied democratic institutions in the Philippines for generations. Elections often are marred by violence, and the latest vote was no different.

Among those killed Monday were a retired military officer and a navy enlisted man acting as a congressional candidate’s bodyguards in Bacoor township in Cavite province, south of Manila, an AP photographer reported.

Troops and gunmen exchanged fire in southern Maguindanao province, where 57 people were massacred last year in the country’s worst election-related attack, said army Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer. Two civilians also were killed in fighting between armed followers of rival candidates for vice mayor, Gen. Ferrer said.

About 130 deaths preceded the last vote in 2007.

The country’s next leader will have no easy task. He will face multiple insurgencies. Muslim rebels and al-Qaeda-linked militants long have staged terrorist attacks and hostage raids in the south, where U.S. troops have been training Filipino soldiers.

Fighting corruption and other irregularities will be a tough challenge. Mrs. Arroyo was 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 ran for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Aquino’s campaign returned a family name that has revived poignant memories of the 1986 popular revolt led by his mother. She 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.

Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski, Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.

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