From Imelda Marcos to Manny Pacquiao, familiar names of political clans and celebrities dominated the ballots in the Philippines' congressional and local elections Monday, making them a contest of popularity first and reform second.
Despite scattered killings and fears of fraud, the polls were expected to be relatively peaceful after authorities took steps to prevent chaos in one of Asia's most raucous democracies. Polling started at 7 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. with first results expected in 48 hours.
More than 52 million Filipinos have registered to elect 18,000 officials, including half of the 24-member Senate, nearly 300 members of the House of Representatives and leaders of a Muslim autonomous region in the south, where Islamic insurgents, al-Qaida-linked gunmen and private armies have long been a concern.
Elections in the Philippines are about name recall. Parties exist in name only and to bankroll campaigns. Political platforms are an addition, less important than a catchy slogan or good TV ad.
Still, the outcome will determine the level of support for President Benigno Aquino III's reform agenda in his remaining three years in office. Aquino has been praised at home and abroad for cracking down on widespread corruption, backing key legislation and concluding an initial peace agreement with Muslim rebels.
But he cannot run for re-election and a choice of his successor will depend on the new political landscape.
Among 33 senatorial candidates are two of Aquino's relatives, a neophyte daughter of the vice president, a son of the sitting chamber president, a son of a late president, an ousted president's son, a spouse and children of former senators and there's a possibility that two siblings will be sitting in the same house. Currently, 15 senators have relatives serving in elective positions.
The race for the House is even more of a family affair. Toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos' widow, the flamboyant 83-year-old Imelda, is expected to keep her seat as a representative for Ilocos Norte province, the husband's birthplace where the locals kept electing the Marcoses despite allegations of corruption and abuse during their long rule. Marcos' daughter, Imee is seeking re-election as governor and the son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., is already a senator.
Boxing star Manny Pacquiao is also seeking re-election in the House and building a dynasty of his own: his brother Rogelio is running to represent his southern district and wife Jinkee as vice-governor for Sarangani province.
On the local level, Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in a 2001 "people power" revolt on corruption allegations, is running for mayor of Manila, hoping to capitalize on his movie star popularity, particularly among the poor masses.
Philippine elections have long been dominated by politicians belonging to the same bloodlines. At least 250 political families have monopolized power across the country, although such dynasties are prohibited under the 1987 constitution. Congress — long controlled by members of powerful clans targeted by the constitutional ban — has failed to pass the law needed to define and enforce the provision.
"Wherever you go, you see the names of these people since we were kids. It is still them," businessman Martin Tunac, 54, said after voting in Manila. "One of the bad things about political dynasties is they control everything, including business."
School counselor Evelyn Dioquino said that the proliferation of political dynasties was a cultural issue and other candidates stood little chance because clans "have money, so they are the only ones who can afford (to run). Of course, if you have no logistics, you can't run for office."
Critics worry that a single family's stranglehold on different levels of government could stymie checks against abuses and corruption. A widely cited example is the 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, in an ambush blamed on rivalry between powerful clans in southern Maguindanao province.
In the latest violence, gunmen killed five people and wounded two mayoral candidates in separate attacks over the weekend. Last month, gunmen fired on a truck carrying a town mayor and his supporters in southern Lanao del Norte province, killing 13 people including his daughter.
The 125,000-strong military has helped the government in urging candidates to shun violence. An army general took off with his troops aboard two helicopters and dropped leaflets calling for peaceful elections in Masbate, a central province notorious for political killings.
Ana Maria Tabunda from the independent pollster Pulse Asia said that dynasties restrict democracy, but added that past surveys by her organization have shown that most Filipinos are less concerned about the issue than with the benefits and patronage they can receive from particular candidates. Voters also often pick candidates with the most familiar surnames instead of those with the best records, she said.
"It's name recall, like a brand. They go by that," she said.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Jim Gomez contributed to this report.
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