MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Millions of Filipinos began voting Monday in a presidential race where a foul-mouthed, crime-busting mayor is favored to win, but who the outgoing president says is a threat to democracy.
Plenty are at stake for the Southeast Asian nation, which has turned around under President Benigno Aquino III, with one of the highest economic growth rates in Asia but remains saddled by massive poverty, inequality and decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies.
Five candidates are vying to succeed Aquino in one of Asia’s liveliest democracies. More than 45,000 candidates are contesting 18,000 national, congressional and local positions in elections that have traditionally been tainted by violence and accusations of cheating, especially in far-flung rural areas.
At least 15 people have been killed in elections-related violence and more than 4,000 arrested for violating a gun ban, according to police.
“Let us show the world that despite our deep passion and support for our candidates, we can hold elections that are peaceful and orderly and reflect the spirit of democracy,” said Aquino, whose six-year term ends in June.
Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista said no major glitches were expected in the voting despite the massive logistical challenges. About 55 million Filipinos have registered to vote in 36,000 voting centers across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, including in a small fishing village in a Philippine-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea.
Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of southern Davao city has led in voter-preference surveys, with a bold promise to wipe out crime and corruption in three to six months if he wins. That has resonated among crime-weary Filipinos but has also sparked alarm and doubts.
Aquino, who backs former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, has campaigned against Duterte, saying he could threaten the country’s democracy.
The brash Duterte, who has been compared to U.S. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump for his propensity for provocative statements, has threatened to close down Congress and form a revolutionary government if he wins and faces stonewalling legislators.
A critical senator has also threatened to file an impeachment complaint against Duterte, accusing him of large-scale corruption and hiding questionable funds in secret joint bank accounts with his daughter. Duterte denies the allegations.
In final campaigning Saturday, Aquino warned voters that Duterte could be a dictator in the making and urged them not to support him. He cited the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as an example of how a despotic leader can gain power and hold on to it without public resistance.
Filipinos have been hypersensitive to potential threats to democracy since they rose in a 1986 “people power” revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who faced allegations of plundering the poor country and condoning widespread human rights violations by state forces. In 2001, a similar uprising forced Joseph Estrada from the presidency over alleged large-scale corruption.
On the campaign trail, all of the candidates but Duterte promised reforms.
Duterte’s opponents – Roxas, Sen. Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago – have all criticized him for remarks that threaten the rule of law and the Philippines’ hard-won democracy.
“Duterte is completely out of the system, he’s out of the box,” said political science Prof. Richard Heydarian of De La Salle University in Manila, adding that in the mayor’s portrayal of social problems, “there is a gap between the rhetoric and reality but it’s working, it’s creating panic among a lot of people and rallying them behind Duterte.”
Duterte, a 71-year-old lawyer and former government prosecutor, built a political name with his iron-fist approach to fighting crime in Davao city, where he has served as mayor for 22 years.
Despite his devil-may-care way with expletives, obscene remarks and allegations of corruption hurled against him, Duterte has led in election polls by more than 10 percentage points over Roxas and Poe. While it may be difficult for rivals to catch up, analysts say the race remains too close to call.
“All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” Duterte told a huge cheering crowd Saturday in his final campaign rally in Manila. “I have no patience, I have no middle ground, either you kill me or I will kill you idiots.”
Aquino triumphed in 2010 elections with a landslide victory on a promise to fight corruption and poverty. After introducing new taxes, more accountability and reforms, including in the judiciary, and cracking down on tax evaders, the Philippines posted average GDP rates of 6.2 percent from 2010 to 2015 to become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies at a time of global economic slowdown.
Although the government reports that more than 7 million Filipinos have been lifted from poverty under Aquino, more than a quarter of the country’s 100 million people remain poor.
Annual debt payments, some dating back to the Marcos years, and limited funds stymie infrastructure improvements and public services, including law enforcement, fueling frequent complaints.
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