Filipinos pin hopes of new political era on balding bachelor

His father was martyred for his opposition to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. His mother was swept into office by a "people's power" uprising. Now Benigno Aquino is the repository of Filipinos' hopes for clean government in a country blighted by rampant corruption.

A balding bachelor, "Noynoy" Aquino, 50, has a commanding lead in the polls as the Philippines prepares to elect a new president today. His closest rivals, Joseph Estrada, an ex-president and former movie star, and Manuel Villar, a millionaire property developer, are both 20 points behind.

But nothing can be taken for granted in the Philippines, where wads of banknotes are distributed by aspiring politicians, and supporting the wrong candidate can be fatal. Five people were shot dead over the weekend, and tens of thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed.

A low-profile congressman and senator for a decade, Mr Aquino is seen by some as uncharismatic. But he has two assets: his impeccable lineage and his clean reputation.

The outgoing president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has been dogged by allegations of corruption since she came to power nine years ago, after Mr Estrada was ousted. He was later convicted of graft, but pardoned by Ms Arroyo.

Mr Aquino's father, Benigno, was assassinated in 1983 after returning from exile in the US to challenge Mr Marcos. His mother, Cory, took up the mantle, and became president three years later. It was the outpouring of national grief sparked by her death last August from cancer that propelled Mr Aquino junior into the presidential race.

The past seems ever present in the Philippines, where Mr Marcos's widow, Imelda, 80, is among those seeking to win a congressional seattoday. Also seeking a seat is Manny Pacquiao, a seven times world welterweight boxing champion.

The campaign has been laced with dirty tricks, including a fake psychiatric report suggesting that Mr Aquino suffered a depressive illness after his father's death. Photographs circulating on the internet show a vice-presidential candidate, Jejomar Binay, cavorting with his mistress.

The elections are taking place in the shadow of the massacre last November of 57 people, including 30 journalists, who were with a political candidate on the southern island of Mindanao.