MANILA — Lured by ladies' underwear, herring, free insurance and other gifts, millions of voters cast ballots today in a midterm election the opposition hopes will strengthen efforts to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
In Tondo, one of Manila's poorest districts, hundreds of people streamed into a busy polling station, fanning themselves with sample ballots handed out by dozens of campaign workers on the street. Undaunted by endemic corruption, they came out to vote in the hope that this time things might be different.
"Sometimes no matter who wins, the same things happen. They all get accused of corruption," said Winnie Cayudin, 42. "What is most important is that when they win, they must accomplish a lot."
Across town, in the gated community of Forbes Park, most of the early-morning voters were domestic workers for the wealthy. "Filipinos never give up," said cook Joss Gupilan, 24. "There's always hope."
Some polls suggest that opponents of Arroyo, who won a six-year term in 2004, will have a strong showing after campaigning to clean up Philippine politics in an alliance called the Genuine Opposition.
Complaints of corruption, vote rigging and the killing of candidates and their supporters, rather than policy debates, have dominated the election campaign. The Supreme Court has designated 111 special courts across the country to handle the expected flood of fraud charges.
It is illegal under Philippine election law for political candidates to promise or give cash, materials or favors in exchange for votes. Yet alleged vote-buying is as common to campaigns here as shaking hands and kissing babies.
Opponents of Ernesto Aspillaga, who is seeking reelection to city council in Manila's financial district, say he broke the rules by handing out thousands of panties to female voters in the barrio of West Rembo. The women could choose from dozens of colors, but each pair had the candidate's name across the bottom.
Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquiao, a former World Boxing Council super-featherweight champion, gave free insurance policies to supporters of his People's Champ Movement in his bid for a congressional seat.
Pacquiao won his WBC title at Los Angeles' Staples Center by knocking out Hector Velazquez in September 2005. He made headlines again in the Philippines last year when a Manila prostitute claimed he was the father of her son and sued him for child support.
The National Election Commission said it would investigate House of Representatives Speaker Jose de Venecia, the fourth-highest official in the Philippines, after a TV report showed him handing out some of the 2.7 million insurance policy cards distributed to his party's supporters. The policies pay almost $2,000 in the event of accidental disability or death, and almost $200 for funeral expenses.
"There is nothing illegal, much less an act of vote-buying, in the distribution of the cards because they are given to party members who are already captive voters," the lawyer for De Venecia's party said in a letter to the commission.
Despite polls giving the edge to opponents of Arroyo, the U.S.-educated economist and daughter of a former president belongs to one of an estimated 250 clans that dominate politics here. So she can count on some powerful allies to bring in the vote for her backers in the Team Unity alliance.
"Fraud recycles the political dynasties and keeps them in power," the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a public policy center, said in a report. "It breeds generations of cheaters and manipulators, corrupt politicians, mediocre executives, bribe takers, absenteeism in Congress."
Arroyo apparently tried to give her Lakas Christian Muslim Democrats Party a boost with a billboard near Manila Bay, which offered a well-timed freebie in the election campaign's final days. Next to a huge picture of the president was an invitation for Filipinos to make free phone calls to loved ones overseas.
More than 8 million Filipinos work abroad, and the money they send home is a mainstay of the economy. Almost a fifth of the country's 91 million people live on less than $1 a day.
In a favorite campaign tactic, some candidates appealed to voters' stomachs with gift certificates redeemable for 10 fresh herring, roast beef or anything worth a little less than $2 at McDonald's.
Politics is a notoriously dirty and violent business in the Philippines, where campaigning for public office is often a life-threatening proposition. At least 116 Filipinos have been killed in election-related violence, including numerous candidates.
A total of 46,133 candidates are running for 17,889 posts, from seats on local councils to the nation's House of Representatives and Senate, in today's elections. More than a million poll observers will be watching for evidence of fraud.