Commanding lead for Aquino in Philippines polls

The son of Corazon Aquino had a wide lead in the Philippines’ presidential elections today after campaigning on a promise to restore the government’s credibility by prosecuting corrupt officials.

The son of Corazon Aquino had a wide lead in the Philippines’ presidential elections today after campaigning on a promise to restore the government’s credibility by prosecuting corrupt officials.

Despite glitches with new computerised counting machines and violence which claimed at least nine lives, election officials hailed yesterday’s vote as a success in a country where poll fraud allegations have marred previous contests.

Benigno Aquino III – whose father was assassinated while opposing a dictatorship and whose mother led the “people power” revolt which restored freedoms – was leading the nine-candidate presidential race with 40.19% of the votes from about 78% of the precincts, while his closest rival, ousted President Joseph Estrada, had 25.46%.

There is no run-off in the Philippines, and whoever has the most votes is declared winner.

In his first public remarks after yesterday’s vote, Mr Aquino thanked Filipinos for the huge support and said he would deliver on a campaign promise to fight corruption and government malaise.

“I will not only not steal, but I’ll have the corrupt arrested,” Mr Aquino told a news conference in his northern home province of Tarlac.

In a bid to save money, he told The Associated Press that he will avoid foreign trips and trim the Cabinet, adding that he hopes the days when Filipinos have to resort to street protests to address government ills are over.

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

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

It was only after former President Corazon Aquino died of cancer last August that her son, a quiet 50-year-old bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief for the leader who helped oust long-time dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 “people power” revolt which restored democracy to the Philippines. She had inherited the mantle of her husband, Benigno Aquino Junior, an opposition senator gunned down by soldiers at Manila Airport in 1983 upon return from US exile to challenge Mr Marcos.

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 said.

“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. The popularity ratings of Manny Villar, a property 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 Villar conceded defeat today and congratulated Mr Aquino, saying he wanted to work with him to help deal with the enormous challenges facing the Philippines.

“It’s clear that, despite our efforts, we were not gifted with victory in Monday’s elections. I respect the voice of the people,” he told a news conference.

Mr Estrada, who largely draws support from the poor, jumped to overtake Mr illar as number two.

The former action movie star was removed from office in 2001 and subsequently convicted on corruption charges. He was later pardoned by Ms Arroyo, and he said he decided to run again to clear his name.

Flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos also ran for a House seat, as did boxing star Manny Pacquiao. “Pacman” was leading in the count in the southern province of Sarangani, where only about half of 300,000 registered voters cast ballots due to a day-long downpour, election official Michael Abas said.

Mrs Marcos and her daughter, Imee, who is running for governor of northern Ilocos Norte province, have garnered insurmountable leads and may be proclaimed winners later today, election official Alipio Castillo said.

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, and machines in more than 400 precincts had problems on Election Day and needed to be replaced. But the computerised machines mean that final results should be available late today or tomorrow compared with previous waits of weeks for results of manual counts.

Turnout was 75% 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 Election Commission Chairman Jose Melo. “I would say it was successful.”

The country’s next leader will face multiple insurgencies. Muslim rebels and al Qaida-linked militants have long staged terrorist attacks and hostage raids in the south, where US troops have been training Filipino soldiers.

Fighting corruption and other irregularities will be a tough challenge. Ms Arroyo was accused of vote-rigging in 2004 and implicated in several scandals which 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 House seat in yesterday’s poll, winning with more than 90% of the votes in her home province of Pampanga, election official Temie Lambino said.

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