Philippine politicians burst onto the campaign trail yesterday, keeping the issues to a minimum as they turned up the theatrics and rhetoric full blast.
About 17,000 posts at all levels of government are up for grabs in the election on May 10, with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo seeking a fresh term and other hopefuls running for the Senate, House of Representatives and jobs such as town mayor.
At rallies with gyrating dancers or on the road in caravans of cars, the mood was village fiesta amplified by the funding and choreography it will take to win.
Arroyo, who is suffering from what one commentator called a "charisma deficit" as she runs second to film star Fernando Poe Jr. in opinion polls, called on candidates to "take the high road to prudence, decency and civility."
But personalities, not platforms, win elections in this sprawling nation of 7,100 islands and a tradition of vote-buying, intimidation and dirty tricks is not likely to change.
At Cuneta Astrodome, a Manila stadium used for everything from cockfighting matches to prayer vigils, Poe headlined an extravaganza of celebrities, the "Sex Bomb Dancers" and popular comedians -- all covered by eight TV cameras.
"Poverty is the greatest scandal in our country," the action hero told more than 10,000 supporters before he linked arms with his team as confetti rained down. "We need change, change in our dream, and that dream is to have a brighter future."
Some people flocked to the stadium to see their movie idol in the flesh. But others like Felipe Santos, a slum dweller, said voting for Poe was a way of exacting revenge for the ouster of Joseph Estrada from the presidential palace in 2001.
"This is payback," he said, calling Arroyo "an imposter."
Estrada, also a film star and a close friend of Poe, won the last election in 1998 by a record margin. Arroyo, his vice president, took over after he was chased from office by a popular revolt fuelled by middle-class anger over corruption.
Arroyo started her campaign in Laguna, south of Manila, but she has drafted in her own legion of stars for a rally later in the day as posters of the president promising "Food, housing, jobs and education" appeared along major streets.
Arroyo, wearing a vest with the slogan "Already proven and solid too," trumpeted her economic achievements to a lukewarm reception from about 500 townspeople.
As she spoke, a man knelt before her, seeking help for a polio-stricken boy in his arms. The social welfare department "will take care of you," Arroyo said.
Candidates will expand their platforms over the next three months. But voters can expect motherhood statements on how to deal with corruption, poverty, massive debts, an economy trailing its neighbors and a peso weakened by election uncertainty.
"This time we want to hear specifics," the Philippine Star said in an editorial.
"The next six years will determine whether we can ever regain our footing in a highly competitive globalized environment or whether we will be doomed to be the basket case in a region long associated with dynamic growth."
While the presidential candidates will concentrate their firepower on the main island of Luzon -- home to most of the wealthiest, best educated and most connected Filipinos -- voters across the archipelago were treated to a touch of campaigning.
In Bacolod, the heart of the nation's sugar industry, posters of the main contenders were plastered on hospital walls, school gates and trees. But in the central city of Cebu, people seemed more concerned about a transport strike than election antics.
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