MANILA The Philippines' presidential race paused after weeks of campaigning that was embittered by the emergence of tough-talking mayor Rodrigo Duterte as the clear front-runner in opinion polls, making him the man to beat in Monday's vote.
Duterte's promises of aggressive, even deadly, measures to wipe out crime have alarmed rivals, who warned at their final rallies on Saturday of danger should he clinch the presidency.
But an estimated 500,000 people turned out for Duterte's last rally just as outgoing President Benigno Aquino took to the stage to renew his call for candidates to unite against the long-time mayor of the southern city of Davao.
Duterte said that by encouraging candidates to gang-up against him, Aquino and his favoured successor, Manuel Roxas, were desperate in the face of defeat.
"Do not create an environment of fear and hate," he told the jubilant crowd in comments aimed at Aquino and Roxas. "They are promoting hatred and division among the people."
Duterte, a brash newcomer on the national political stage, is known as "the punisher" for his fight against crime and his abrasive rhetoric has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump.
Critics say the country's political elite had hoped for a smooth handover to Manuel Roxas to preserve a status quo that has come under heavy criticism for failing to tackle poverty and share the fruits of several years of robust economic growth.
Duterte's closest contender, Grace Poe, is seen as the most likely to challenge him in Monday's ballot. Last week she rejected the administration's offer to form an alliance, which she interpreted as a call for her to withdraw and back Roxas.
"You must be given the free choice to select your leader and respect it and not be manipulated by a few people," she told her supporters.
Poe's pro-poor platform has resonated among Filipinos, as has her life story: abandoned at a church as a baby and adopted by movie stars.
Some analysts believe the calls for a pact from Aquino and Roxas may have come too late and suggest some of Roxas's supporters could put their votes behind Poe instead, setting the stage for a bitter, two-way fight with Duterte.
Some campaign strategists have expressed concern that, with so much at stake and the possibility of a close race, vote-buying could be a problem in Monday's ballot.
(Additional reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by John Chalmers and Paul Tait)
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Published Date: May 08, 2016 10:00 am | Updated Date: May 08, 2016 10:00 am