MANILA The Philippines votes for a new president on Monday after an acrimonious election campaign that revealed popular disgust with the country's ruling elite for failing to make inroads into poverty and inequality despite years of robust economic growth.
Opinion polls in the days ahead of the vote showed that Rodrigo Duterte - a city mayor whose brash challenge to the political establishment has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump - was comfortably ahead of his four rivals for the presidency.
The firebrand mayor's single-issue campaign focused on law and order tapped into anxiety about corruption, crime and drug abuse, but his incendiary rhetoric and advocacy of extrajudicial killings brought predictions that he would be a dictator.
"Mr. Duterte's campaign symbol is a fist — intended for lawbreakers, but seemingly also aimed at the oligarchy," Miguel Syjuco, a respected Philippine writer, said in an opinion column last week. "The message resonates with the frustrated poor who feel let down by the government, but his fans span all classes."
He said Duterte's "change is coming" slogan was "the exactly right message from the completely wrong messenger".
Manuel Roxas, the grandson of a former president and favoured candidate of outgoing President Benigno Aquino, told a recent news conference that the election was "the force of democracy against the force of dictatorship".
Despite these concerns, global risk research firm Eurasia Group said in a report ahead of the election that regardless of who wins the Philippines is likely to continue on the pro-growth and reform-oriented path set by Aquino.
"CLAMOUR FOR CHANGE"
More than half of the Southeast Asian nation's population of 100 million people are registered as voters for Monday's election to choose a president, vice-president, 300 lawmakers and about 18,000 local government officials.
Jostling for office with traditional politicians, voters will find business chiefs, entertainment personalities and the global boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, who is running for the senate.
"Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is contesting the vice presidency.
Excitement was running high on Sunday in the southern city of Davao - where Duterte's man-of-the-people style has won him the mayorship seven times since 1988 - as residents sensed he was on the cusp of victory.
"It's the clamour for change, it's the clamour of the people to have a better president than the usual traditional politician," said Lezita Go, a businesswoman and mother of two.
Elections in the Philippines are traditionally difficult to predict, but two opinion polls last week showed Duterte had a lead of 11 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, with support from across all socioeconomic demographic groups.
Grace Poe, a senator, and Roxas are seen as the most likely to challenge Duterte. 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.
Aquino last week urged trailing candidates to unite and block Duterte's path to the presidency. Interpreting that as a call for her to withdraw and back Roxas, Poe refused.
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.
Polls open at 6 a.m. (2200 GMT on Sunday) and close 11 hours later. The election commission chief has said results could be known within 24 hours but it could take up to three days.
(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in DAVAO; Martin Petty and Enrico Dela Cruz in MANILA; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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Published Date: May 09, 2016 12:00 am | Updated Date: May 09, 2016 12:00 am