Son of democracy icons likely next Philippine prez

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine Sen. Benigno Aquino III, whose parents fought to topple a dictatorship, promised today to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption as he headed for a landslide victory in the presidential elections.

“I will not only not steal, but I’ll have the corrupt arrested,” Aquino, 50, told a news conference in his first comments since Monday’s polls. Massive corruption has long dogged the Philippines, tainting electoral politics and skimming billions of public funds in a country where a third of the population lives on $1 a day.

Aquino — whose father was assassinated while opposing Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and whose mother led the 1986 “people power” revolt that restored democracy — was leading the nine-candidate presidential race with 40.2 percent of the votes from about 78 percent of the precincts, while his closest rival, ousted President Joseph Estrada, had 25.5 percent.

There is no runoff in the Philippines, home to 90 million people, and whoever has the most votes is declared winner.

Despite glitches with new computerized counting machines and violence that claimed at least 12 lives, election officials hailed Monday’s vote as a success in a country where poll fraud allegations have marred previous contests. Turnout was 75 percent among about 50 million eligible voters, the Elections Commission said.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy congratulated Filipinos “for achieving another milestone in their nation’s democratic history.” It said it looked forward to a “smooth transition” and working with the new government to “deepen the friendship and partnership between our two nations.”

Ambassador Alistair MacDonald, the European Union’s ambassador to the Philippines, said the high turnout and the “admirable patience shown by the voters were an impressive proof of the resolve of the Philippine people to have their voice heard.”

Filipinos were also voting for a vice president, senators, congressmen as well as provincial, town and city officials. Flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos won a seat in the House of Representatives. Boxing star Manny Pacquiao was leading in the count for a House seat in the southern province of Sarangani.

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

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

Those promises struck a chord in the Philippines, where Aquino tapped into a national yearning for an honest leader after nine years of outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s scandal-tainted administration.

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. Nevertheless, she ran for a House seat on Monday, winning with more than 90 percent of the votes in her home province of Pampanga, election official Temie Lambino said.

Still, Aquino’s political appeal largely stems from that of his parents.

It was only after former President Corazon Aquino died of cancer last August that her son, a quiet lawmaker and bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief for the leader who helped oust Marcos in 1986. She had inherited the mantle of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr., an opposition senator gunned down by soldiers at Manila’s airport in 1983 upon return from U.S. exile to challenge Marcos.

Former Education Secretary Florencio Abad, who is Aquino’s closest political lieutenant, says he won’t be able to rest on his family name.

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

“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.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple said Aquino, once in office, will have to decide how much he can afford to antagonize the wealthy families that have influenced Philippine politics for generations as he pursues reforms.

The easier path would be to make cosmetic reforms, Casiple said, but complicated issues — such as distributing his family’s vast sugar estate to landless workers — could end up hounding him as they did his mother.

“He is lucky in that those who brought him to power have no big expectations of him,” Casiple said. “All they want is someone who is honest and somebody who can fight corruption. It is like a carte blanche.”

Aquino was considered the favorite to win the election, in which some other leading candidates carried the taint of scandal. The popularity ratings of Sen. Manny Villar, a real estate developer-turned-politician who was neck-and-neck with Aquino in early surveys, plunged after rivals accused him of using his position to enrich himself and avoiding a Senate ethics probe.

Villar conceded defeat Tuesday.

Estrada, who largely draws support from the poor, 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 Arroyo, and he said he decided to run again to clear his name.

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

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