Arroyo on course for victory in Philippines

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the President of the Philippines, appeared on course last night to win six more years in power, with early returns from yesterday's election showing her ahead of her main opponent, Fernando Poe Junior.

Two exit polls gave Mrs Arroyo 36.5 per cent of the vote, compared with 31.4 per cent for Mr Poe, a former film star. Official results are not expected for a month. But a count by an independent watchdog will give a clearer picture in the coming days and an accurate prediction within a week.

Election day in the 7,000 islands of the Philippines was marred by violence, with 20 people killed yesterday and on Sunday. Bombs exploded in several areas of the archipelago, where candidates were vying for thousands of influential local posts. A total of 114 people have died in election-related incidents since December.

Mr Poe, a close friend of Mrs Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada, began the campaign with a strong lead, but lost ground as the President's powerful electoral machine swung into action. Mr Poe, who has no political experience, also failed to convince the country's 43 million voters that he had a credible platform to tackle debt, poverty, insurgency and corruption.

Victory would give Mrs Arroyo her first proper mandate to lead the mostly Roman Catholic nation. She was formerly the vice-president, but became President after Mr Estrada was toppled by middle-class protests in 2001.

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