MANILA (Reuters) – Voting for a new Philippine president began on Monday after an acrimonious election campaign that revealed popular disgust with the country’s ruling elite for failing to tackle poverty and inequality despite years of robust economic growth.
Opinion polls in the days ahead of the vote showed that Rodrigo Duterte – a mayor whose brash challenge to the political establishment has drawn comparisons with U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump – was comfortably ahead of his four rivals for the presidency.
“I am voting early so the mayor will be represented,” said housewife Lea Alimasag at a polling station in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte’s man-of-the-people style has won him seven mayoral elections since 1988. Like many others there, she was dressed in red, the official colour of the Duterte camp.
The populist mayor’s single-issue campaign focused on law and order tapped into anxiety about graft, crime and drug abuse, but for many his incendiary rhetoric and talk of extrajudicial killings smack worryingly of the country’s authoritarian past.
“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 the favoured candidate of outgoing President Benigno Aquino, described the election as “the force of democracy against the force of dictatorship”.
Despite these concerns, global risk research firm Eurasia Group said in a pre-election report that the Philippines is likely to continue on Aquino’s pro-growth and reform-oriented path regardless of who wins the presidency.