MANILA: Elections in the Philippines on Monday were marred by violence with six people killed, while voters expressed frustration at problems with vote-counting machines that led to long queues.
More than 40 million Filipinos were expected to turn up at polling stations across the archipelago to elect a successor to President Gloria Arroyo, whose near decade-long rule has been tarnished by allegations of corruption.
Noynoy Aquino, a 50-year-old bachelor, is the favourite to win the presidency.
But violence that always plagues Philippine politics, as well as problems with the nation’s first effort at using computers to count votes, fuelled longstanding concerns about the whether the election would be credible.
More than 17,000 positions are at stake — from president down to municipal council seats — and local politicians are infamous for using their own “private armies” to kill rivals or intimidate voters.
At least two civilians were killed as a series of battles raged in the flashpoint southern province of Maguindanao, where 57 people died in an election-linked massacre late last year.
The army, which had deployed thousands of troops to Maguinanao in a bid to minimise the violence there, said soldiers engaged in a series of firefights with unknown assailants.
Voters fled polling booths to escape the violence, while the military reported the two civilians who died were killed in clashes elsewhere between the private armies of rival candidates for a vice mayoral post.
Another four people were killed in other parts of the restive southern Philippines on Monday morning.
Meanwhile, long queues formed at polling stations with the election commission estimating 85 percent of the eligible voting population would turn out.
The Philippines is using computers for the first time to tally the votes in a bid to minimise the risk of cheating and to quicken the counting process that took weeks when done manually.
But glitches discovered in the week before the election — memory cards to be used in the computers were found to be configured incorrectly — raised concerns about whether the system would work.
Problems emerged immediately on Monday with some machines breaking down, and the election commission was forced to extend the voting period by one hour.
Most embarrassingly for election organisers, Aquino could not immediately vote when he turned up at a polling station in his northern home province of Tarlac because the ballot-counting machine had broken down.
“Hopefully, this is just an isolated incident. We are waiting for more reports… (but) if people can’t vote because the machines don’t accept their ballots, then certainly that is a problem,” Aquino said.
Aquino’s main rivals are former president Joseph Estrada, 73, and property magnate Manny Villar, 60.
Two major independent surveys gave Aquino voter support of between 39 and 42 percent, a two-to-one lead over his challengers that places him on course for the biggest win in Philippine election history.
The frontrunner is the only son of former president Corazon Aquino and her assassinated husband, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who are revered by many for spearheading the restoration of Philippine democracy in the 1980s.
However, the Philippines’ tumultuous brand of democracy is capable of delivering all manner of surprises, and Aquino’s win is no certainty.
Villar is counting on a vast nationwide political machinery to help him pull off a shock win, while former movie star Estrada retains strong support among the poor even after he was deposed as president in 2001 for being corrupt.
Many colourful characters are contesting the elections, including world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, 31, who is running for a seat in the nation’s lower house.
“Today is the day, the judgement day,” Pacquiao said in a television interview as he waited to vote in the southern province of Sarangani that he hopes to represent.
“Of course I’m very confident to win the election.”
Another candidate for the lower house is Imelda Marcos, 80, who gained global notoriety when thousands of her shoes were found in the presidential palace after her late husband Ferdinand’s overthrow in 1986.