Philippine Presidential Election Campaign Begins

Official campaigning has begun in the Philippines for the first presidential elections in six years.

President Gloria Arroyo is not allowed to run again in the vote on 10 May.

Competition is intense between two opposition figures, with Mrs Arroyo's nominee and a former president lagging in the polls.

Long proud of its democratic traditions, the Philippines has still failed to find a leader able to deliver peace and prosperity.

For the wealthiest candidates, the political advertising has been going on for months.

The violence that has been part of every Philippine election started early too - the mass killing of 57 people in the southern province of Maguindanao in November has set a grim tone.

Election campaigns in the Philippines usually deliver showmanship, drama, personality clashes and genuine idealism.

What they rarely offer is any cogent debate of ideas or contest of policies.

This campaign is no exception.

"It's going to be a very tight race," says political analyst, writer and journalist Marites Vitug.

"Manny Villar is running a disciplined campaign and has enormous funds at his disposal - he could be our Thaksin, or our Berlusconi," she said, in reference to the wealthy former Thai and current Italian leaders.

The wealthiest candidate, Mr Villar, claims an affinity with the poor, the vast voting majority.

He was once a fish market seller and is now the biggest home-builder in the Philippines.

Ruling class

Mr Villar is up against Benigno "NoyNoy" Aquino, son of the revered former President Cory Aquino. He enjoyed an early surge soon after her death last year, but is now neck-and-neck with Mr Villar.

Lagging behind is Gilberto Teodoro, the current president's favourite, and the former movie star and former president Joseph "Erap" Estrada.

Police inspect the bodies in hillside grave in Ampatuan, Maguindanao province

The Maguindanao killings set a grim tone for the presidential elections

Also in the race is the former Mayor of Olongapo Richard Gordon, someone known as a good manager.

But as always in the Philippines, it will be the money, and the personalities, that count.

"It will really take a lot of resources, and I'm not referring to money alone," said Ronald Holmes, of the political science department of Manila's De La Salle University and president of the survey group, Pulse Asia.

Spending limits do exist, but an apparent lack of manpower has prevented the Commission on Elections (Comelec) from ever prosecuting anyone for over-spending.

"The primary issues are the old issues of economic growth and the problem of poverty," said Mr Holmes.

Alongside a widespread desire for cheaper commodity prices is the topic of corruption.

There is little indication, however, that any of the current crop of candidates will make any more progress on that than the country's rich ruling class has managed in the past.
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