Opponents try to head off front runner Duterte in final rallies for Philippine presidency

Presidential candidate Grace Poe speaking to supporters during an election campaign in Pandi, Bulacan in northern Philippines on May 6, 2016.
Presidential candidate Grace Poe speaking to supporters during an election campaign in Pandi, Bulacan in northern Philippines on May 6, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine election hopefuls campaigned for a final day on Saturday (May 7) amid the drama of a late intervention by the country's outgoing leader to try to block maverick mayor Rodrigo Duterte from winning the presidency.

President Benigno Aquino caused a stir on Friday with a call for candidates to collaborate against Mr Duterte in a last-ditch move to stop the "Trump of the East" from converting his runaway popularity into victory in Monday's vote.

Philippine politics is no stranger to controversial characters and the firebrand Duterte is one of its most divisive, alarming opponents with his advocacy of extrajudicial killings as a deterrent against rampant crime and illegal drugs.

There were no signs on Saturday of Mr Aquino's idea taking hold. Some experts said it could backfire on his chosen successor, Mr Manuel Roxas.

Mr Roxas invited rival Grace Poe for talks aimed at derailing Mr Duterte, who has a double-digit lead in the latest opinion polls, but was met with a resounding "no".

Vice-President Jejomar Binay's team described Mr Aquino's call as "hollow".

Political analyst Prospero de Vera said the government had seen the writing on the wall for its candidate and it needed to change tack.

"This is all part of the administration's messaging to project that Manuel Roxas has the momentum," he said. "They need these dramatics to prevent allies in the provinces from jumping ship."

The five candidates have major rallies planned later on Saturday, the final day allowed for campaigning. Mr Duterte was a clear leader in final opinion polling with a lead of 11 points over Senator Poe, with Mr Roxas close behind in third.

Mr Duterte, 71, is the alternative candidate who has lit up the race with his incendiary rhetoric and image as a loose cannon.

Experts say his recent surge, and Sen Poe's popularity, represents public disenchantment with Mr Aquino's administration.

That sentiment has perplexed investors and some Western governments, given the robust performance of the Philippine economy under Mr Aquino.

However, criticism by opponents that it has not translated into jobs or better livelihoods for millions of poor appears to be resonating.

Sen Poe's pro-investment, anti-poverty platform is striking a chord, however, as is Mr Duterte's promises of a war on crime and his profanity-packed speeches during a campaign that bears the emblem of a clenched fist.

Mr Duterte's campaign manager Leoncio Evasco Jr described Mr Aquino's call for a united front against the Davao city mayor as desperate.

"It also further unmasks the true character of the Aquino regime - one that in the face of debacle will abandon ship and run like a headless chicken," Mr Evasco said in a statement.