MANILA • The Philippines' raucous democracy cranks into top gear this week as campaigning begins for national elections, with familiar themes of graft, dictatorship and celebrity power set to dominate.
The three-month campaign launches tomorrow with most interest on a crowded contest to succeed President Benigno Aquino, who has won global applause for six years of strong economic growth and a bruising anti-graft campaign.
There are myriad other sub-plots, including a bid by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos' son to take the vice-presidency and eight-time world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao's run for a Senate seat.
The jailhouse campaigns of two politicians charged with murder who are running in local mayoral polls, and graft-tainted former president Gloria Arroyo's run for a third term as congresswoman while behind bars, fuel the atmosphere of chaos and chicanery.
There are four major contenders for the presidency and most analysts say the deciding factors will - as usual - be name recognition and charisma over ideology or policy.
Mr Aquino, 56, is still relatively popular, but the Constitution limits him to a single term. His preferred successor is US-educated investment banker Mar Roxas, a trusted ally with many years governing experience, who is vowing to continue the pair's "straight path" agenda of steady reforms and fighting graft.
But Mr Roxas, 58, is trailing in the polls. Analysts say he has a huge task to ignite an electorate that generally sees him as having little charisma.
In contrast, Mr Jejomar Binay, 73, is a natural campaigner who grew up in poverty but rose to become one of the nation's most powerful politicians. He is the Vice-President and heads the main opposition party - the nation's two top posts are elected separately - but has had to endure graft allegations.
There is also Ms Grace Poe, 47, the adopted daughter of a deceased movie star whose success so far can largely be attributed to her father's enduring popularity. However, the Supreme Court could knock her out of the race before the May 9 elections, with judges hearing arguments that she is ineligible based on citizenship and residency laws.
The wild-card contender is Mr Rodrigo Duterte, 70, a controversial figure nicknamed "The Punisher" for his ruthless but successful tactics fighting crime as mayor of Davao, a major southern city.
Meanwhile, a town mayor was shot and hurt in an ambush in the conflict-wracked south yesterday. A gunman on a motorcycle opened fire on Mayor Jasper Que as he drove with his two bodyguards in the port city of Zamboanga, city police spokesman Helen Galvez said.
Mr Que, who suffered three gunshot wounds, is recovering in a Zamboanga hospital, while his assailant escaped. Mr Que, who is not seeking re-election, is mayor of Bongao, a remote seaside town on the country's southern-most tip. A relative is running to succeed him, according to election records.