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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 04:13 GMT 05:13 UK
Dynasties dominate Philippines poll
By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Masbate

Manila's streets are crammed with election posters

There are 87,000 candidates in the Philippines contesting more than 17,000 political positions, ranging from senators to city councillors.

Every fence, wall and tree is cluttered with a cacophony of posters bearing the names and beaming faces of would-be politicians.

It is a bewildering process for the voters, not least because on the ballot papers they have to write down their choice of candidates for every post.

Name recognition is crucial. That is why so many actors, TV presenters and former sports stars run for office, and one of the reasons why the names of the same powerful families keep popping up during elections.

The other reason is that these families, who still control most of the land and business opportunities in the Philippines, need access to political office to maintain their economic prominence.

This means that vote-buying, intimidation and in some areas killing are a normal part of election campaigning.

Family affair

Masbate is the third-poorest province in the country and during elections it is one of the most violent.

Candidate Maloli Espinosa
I prefer not to campaign like this with all these guns, but my family insists I am able to defend myself
Maloli Espinosa
The province was traditionally dominated by the Espinosas, who own huge cattle ranches here. But their political dominance declined after one-time governor and congressman Moises Espinosa was gunned down in 1989.

A few years later his brother Tito was also shot dead, followed by his son Moises Junior. Today his daughter Maloli is trying her luck in the second congressional district.

She gave up a high-powered job in Manila to run and she is up against the Espinosas old rivals, the Khos.

Governor Antonio Kho is running against Maloli for Congress. His wife Olga is running for governor against Maloli's uncle Miling. There is certainly no love lost between the two families.

Manny Pacquiao campaigning in south Cotabato, Mindanao
Boxing champion and national idol Manny Pacquiao on the campaign trail
Maloli's police and army escort tool up before she goes campaigning with a formidable array of weapons: M16 rifles, mini-armalites, Uzi sub-machine guns.

She keeps two handguns by her feet in the car.

"I prefer not to campaign like this with all these guns, but my family insists I am able to defend myself," she told me.

The escort follows a discrete distance behind her as she presses the flesh in the poor barrios of Masbate town.

Bribery 'widespread'

Eleven people have died during the campaign in Masbate, some say even more. The police say the total may be lower, as they believe that some killings are unrelated to the elections.

It is in any case a lower toll than in previous years, but still too high for local bishop Joel Baylon, who summoned the candidates last month and made them sign a covenant binding them to a code of decent political behaviour.

He has nailed the agreement on the wall of the cathedral.

Posters for candidates from the Abapo family
Bing, Bong-Bong and Lovely; a family affair
"We have the moral responsibility to tell people what is right and wrong and there should have been more responsibility from the local leaders, but there is none", he told me.

Bishop Baylon has chastised local politicians for keeping the province so poor and he has organised vigils and motorcades urging ordinary people not to sell their votes.

But there is still plenty of intimidation and bribery going on, say local residents.

The police chief, Superintendent Edgar Layon, says his men always find themselves one step behind the private armies who operate here on behalf of the big families.

And no-one expects this rough political culture to change.

In the town of Milagros, Mayor Bing Abapo has reached his three-term limit, so he is now running for the position of vice-mayor.

Bodyguard for candidate Maloli Espinosa
One of Maloli Espinosa's bodyguards with his Uzi submachine gun
The vice-mayor, who currently happens to be his son Bong-Bong, is now running for mayor.

Mr Abapo also has a daughter named Lovely Abapo, who is only in her early twenties but is standing to be a city councillor.

I asked a worker in the fish market whether he was happy to see the same names dominating Masbate generation after generation.

"What can we do?", he told me.

"No-one else but the big families will run because no-one else has enough money."

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