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Aquino opens up lead in Philippine vote

The son of two Philippine democracy icons widens his lead in presidential elections after campaigning on a promise to begin prosecuting corrupt officials.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The son of Philippine democracy icon Corazon Aquino had a wide lead Tuesday in presidential elections after campaigning on a promise to restore the government's credibility by prosecuting corrupt officials.

Despite glitches with new computerized counting machines and violence that claimed at least nine lives, election officials hailed Monday's vote as a success in a country where poll fraud allegations have marred previous contests.

Sen. Benigno Aquino III — whose father was assassinated while opposing a dictatorship and whose mother led the "people power" revolt that restored freedoms — was leading the nine-candidate presidential race with 40.19 percent of the votes from about 78 percent of the precincts, while his closest rival, ousted President Joseph Estrada, had 25.46 percent.

There is no runoff in the Philippines, and whoever has the most votes is declared winner.

Aquino's sudden political rise has bolstered hopes among his supporters for a clean leadership after nine years of a scandal-tainted administration that was rocked by coup attempts and protests.

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

It was only after former President Corazon Aquino died of cancer last August that her son, a quiet 50-year-old lawmaker and bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief for the leader who helped oust longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 "people power" revolt that restored democracy to the Philippines. 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.

Aquino's closest political lieutenant, former Education Secretary Florencio Abad, said he rode on the crest of a national yearning for an honest leader after corruption scandals under outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

"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 Associated Press.

Benigno Aquino III
Presidential candidate Sen. Benigno \"Noynoy\" Aquino III shows his stained hands after voting following a more than four hours wait in the country's first ever automated Presidential elections Monday May 10, 2010 at Hacienda Luisita, Tarlac province in northern Philippines. Aquino III whose father was assassinated while opposing a dictatorship and whose late mother led the \"people power\" revolt that restored freedoms commanded a large lead in the last pre-election polls. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)Bullit Marquez / 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.

Some of Aquino's opponents carried the taint of scandal, all too common in the Philippines. 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 avoid a Senate ethics probe.

Villar conceded defeat Tuesday and congratulated Aquino, saying he wanted to work with him to help deal with the enormous challenges facing the Philippines.

"It's clear that despite our efforts, we were not gifted with victory in Monday's elections. I respect the voice of the people," he told a news conference.

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.

Flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos also ran for a House seat, as did boxing star Manny Pacquiao. "Pacman" was leading in the count in the southern province of Sarangani, where only about half of 300,000 registered voters cast ballots due to a daylong downpour, election official Michael Abas said.

Marcos and her daughter Imee, who is running for governor of northern Ilocos Norte province, have garnered insurmountable leads and may be proclaimed winners later Tuesday, election official Alipio Castillo said.

For the first time, optical scanning machines counted the votes in 76,000 precincts. A software glitch discovered a week ago nearly derailed the vote, but was fixed at the last minute. Still, some machines malfunctioned in the tropical humidity, including in Aquino's hometown of Tarlac, north of Manila, where the senator had to wait nearly five hours to cast his ballot.

Election Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said that about 465 of 76,000 machines had problems but that most were replaced. The computerized machines mean that final results should be available late Tuesday or Wednesday vs. previous waits of weeks for results of manual counts.

Turnout was 75 percent
Turnout was 75 percent among about 50 million eligible voters, the Elections Commission said.

"The people came in droves, the turnout was very encouraging. The machines worked more than we expected," said Election Commission Chairman Jose Melo. "I would say it was successful."

The country's next leader 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.

Fighting corruption and other irregularities will be a tough challenge. 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.

She denies any wrongdoing and ran for a House seat in Monday's vote, winning with more than 90 percent of the votes in her home province of Pampanga, election official Temie Lambino said.