A film star heralded as the Philippines' answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger launched his bid for presidential power yesterday when the country embarked on three months of fevered electioneering.
Fernando Poe, a secondary school drop-out who has never held public office, is relying on celebrity appeal in his campaign to oust Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the election on 10 May. At his inaugural rally in a Manila basketball stadium yesterday, the opposition front-runner - whose nickname is "Da King" - portrayed himself as a hero of the underdog.
Mr Poe, 64, whose rally featured comedians, fellow actors and a dance group called the Sex Bomb Girls, is wooing the impoverished masses who had been the support base of Joseph Estrada, the disgraced former president. Mr Estrada was swept from office in 2001 by "people power" street protests fuelled by allegations of corruption. Mrs Arroyo, the vice-president, was installed in his stead.
Now Mrs Arroyo, 56, is seeking her first popular mandate, despite pledging in 2002 that she would not run. The US will be watching the election closely, because she has been one of its staunchest Asian allies in the war on terrorism and brought in American troops to train local units.
Supporters say she has been a stabilising force in the turbulent Philippines, quashing a military mutiny last year and holding peace talks with Muslim separatists and communist insurgents. Critics point to the massive budget deficit and culture of corruption that permeates politics and government in the sprawling country of 7,000 islands and 82 million people.
Certainly Mrs Arroyo cannot compete with Mr Poe in the celebrity stakes, although she has chosen a television talk-show host, Noli de Castro, as her running mate. A former economics professor, she is regarded as a dour technocrat and suffers from what one commentator has called "a charisma deficit". While the chaotic and colourful campaign resembles the soap operas of which Filipinos are inordinately fond, observers expect it to be marred by vote-buying, intimidation and dirty tricks. Plans to computerise vote-counting to reduce corruption were dropped after the contract to supply the computers was corruptly awarded.
There are also fears of a repetition of the political violence that claimed dozens of lives before the last election. The Philippine Daily Inquirer called the poll "the most contentious political exercise" since the snap election in 1986 that led to the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos.
Yesterday Mrs Arroyo trekked in drizzly weather to the small town of Cavinti in mountainous Laguna province, where she addressed a lukewarm crowd of about 1,000 people before attending a Catholic mass. The president, who wore a vest with the slogan, "Already proven and solid too", has urged candidates to "take the high road to prudence, decency and civility".
Those listening were divided about whether to vote for her. Angelina Fegi, 32, said: "We have seen what she has done for the people. She has already improved the housing and livelihood, and we think she can do more." But Alven Fernandez, a 48-year-old farmer, said: "Candidates usually make a lot of promises, but nothing really happens."
Mr Poe was the headline act in a star-studded show, with 20,000 crowding into a stadium lined with video screens for a glimpse of their idol. "Poverty is the greatest scandal in our country," he said, before linking arms with his team as confetti rained down. "We need change, change in our dream, and that dream is to have a brighter future."
One of his supporters, Ernesto Maceda, a former president of the Senate, lambasted Mrs Arroyo for presiding over a fall in the peso and allowing corruption to flourish. "This is all because of the order of 'the Queen'," he said. "Who shall we replace? The Queen. And who should replace her? No other than Da King."
Mr Poe, riding high in the polls despite his failure to outline any policies, is a household name and pillar of the Philippine movie industry. Named best actor several times in the local Oscars, he has been acting since the 1950s, usually portraying strong, silent heroes who beat up bad guys and help the oppressed. Inevitably, he is compared with Mr Schwarzenegger, the recently elected governor of California.
Among his supporters are former Marcos followers; indeed, Marcos's widow, Imelda, is his godmother. Mr Poe is also a friend of Mr Estrada, a fellow film star, who is in jail awaiting trial for economic plunder. Some pundits believe Mr Estrada is masterminding the campaign and expect him to be pardoned if Mr Poe is elected. Mr Poe, however, insists he is his own man. Mrs Arroyo has the advantage of being the first sitting president to fight an election since the Marcos era. Co-opted into power last time, she can circumvent the law that prevents citizens from serving more than one six-year term.
The other opposition candidates include Paul Roco, a former minister with a clean reputation and a predilection for flowery Hawaiian shirts, and Panfilo Lacson, an opposition senator and former police chief who threatened officers with the sack unless they slimmed down to a 38in waist. Mr Lacson has accused Mrs Arroyo's husband of corruption, a charge he denies. Then there is Eddie Villanueva, known as "Brother Eddie", a former Marxist radical turned Christian evangelist who leads a group that claims seven million members and is campaigning for a return to Christian values. His followers include film and sports celebrities, some of whom wept when they went on television to beg Filipinos to vote for him.
All are trailing Mr Poe in the polls, although the film star has faced numerous hurdles including a legal battle to prove he is Filipino. Documents were trawled through and family trees unearthed as opponents sought to prove that his parentage - an American mother and Spanish father - disqualified him from office, even questioning the legitimacy of their marriage. The Elections Commission rejected the case.
Mrs Arroyo is also facing flak. Last week she had to defend herself against allegations of using public funds in her campaign. Some of her rivals have accused her of using the armed forces to spy on them. Last month five captains were arrested after making a televised demand for the resignation of Eduardo Ermita, the Defence Secretary, and denouncing the "dangerous politicisation" of the military.
The campaign will be watched by factions in the military, which have tried to seize power in the past. The uprising by rogue soldiers last July was suspected by some of being carried out by Estrada supporters in the hope of reinstating their hero. Mrs Arroyo also put down an earlier coup attempt. A total of 17,000 posts are being contested in the election, from membership of the Senate to town mayors.