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Huge challenges face Philippine heir apparent Aquino

By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Manila

Benigno Aquino and a portrait of Corazon Aquino, Tarlac province, Philippines (11 May 2010)
Mr Aquino's pedigree has been central to his campaign

There is a saying in the Philippines that in an election there are no losers - only winners and those who have been cheated.

It is not hard to see why people here might think that - elections are invariably followed by allegations of vote-buying, ballot-tampering and corruption, not to mention scores of poll-related deaths.

This time, though, despite malfunctioning voting machines, long queues at polling stations and several violent attacks in the south of the country, the polls have gone relatively smoothly, at least by Philippine standards.

The outcome seems virtually certain - Benigno Aquino, more commonly known as Noynoy, is yet to be officially declared the country's next president, but he already has an unassailable lead.

All his rival candidates bar one, former President Joseph Estrada, have already conceded defeat.

"I'm smiling again," the visibly relieved Election Commision chairman, Jose Melo, told reporters late on Tuesday. "Things went much better than expected," added Telibert Laoc, an election monitor.

Combating corruption

So attention is now turning to what the quiet, unassuming 50-year-old bachelor will do during his six-year term in office.

I will not only not steal, but I will run after thieves
Benigno Aquino

At the moment he is better known for his parents than for any of his own achievements - and there is little doubt that what propelled him into office was the fact his mother was the former President Cory Aquino, and his father the pro-democracy hero Ninoy Aquino.

Throughout the gruelling three months of electioneering, Noynoy has talked a lot about emulating his mother, and carrying on her pro-democracy agenda.

His other main campaign pledge has been to combat corruption - something he reaffirmed late on Tuesday, when it became clear he would win.

"I will not only not steal, but I will run after thieves," he told reporters. "The first priority has to be to address the issue of corruption - get government's power back so that they can empower the people."

Mr Aquino has already indicated that this anti-corruption drive might include bringing down some powerful people - he even plans to have his predecessor Gloria Arroyo investigated for alleged vote-rigging in the 2004 presidential election, an accusation she denies.

"He wants to get the big fish," said political analyst Marites Vitug.

One of Mr Aquino's other clear priorities is to tackle the grinding poverty in many areas of the country; a third of the 90 million population lives on just one US dollar a day.

Milf rebels in the Philippines (file image)
Rebel violence will be pressing concern for the new president

This he also links to corruption - his campaign slogan read "When no one's corrupt, no one will be poor" - and he has calculated that by strengthening tax collection and clamping down on corruption, the government will gain an additional 400 billion pesos ($8.9bn: £5.7bn) to help the poor.

But many of his other priorities are still unclear - not an unusual state of affairs in the Philippines, where personalities rather than policies are the focus of election campaigns.

One of the key problems Mr Aquino will inherit from Mrs Arroyo is the high level of localised violence, particularly on the southern island of Mindanao, where the armed forces are fighting both Islamic and communist rebels.

Mr Aquino has vowed to pursue the current administration's peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) rebels in the south, but few exact details have been given so far.

Another area of concern is the estimated 112 private armies spread around the country, many of which are maintained by powerful local warlords.

Last month the campaign group Human Rights Watch criticised Mr Aquino for failing to take a tougher stance on stamping these "unaccountable armed forces" out.

Immediate plans

But for now the president-in-waiting has more immediate concerns.

Imelda Marcos campaigning in Ilocos norte province, Philippines (23 March 2010)

He is still waiting to see if his running mate Mar Roxas wins the vice-presidential race; candidates are all voted for separately in the Philippines, and Mr Roxas is currently vying with Jojo Binay in a closely-fought contest.

There is also the prospect that Mr Estrada, who looks likely to have come second to Mr Aquino in the presidential contest, could question the results.

Then there is the fact that Mr Aquino is likely to face some tough - and familiar - adversaries.

Gloria Arroyo, barred from running again for the presidency, easily won a seat in Congress, and the Marcoses - the other big political family in the Philippines, and historical arch-enemies of the Aquinos - are also rising up the political ladder.

Imelda, the wife of former President Ferdinand Marcos, has won a congressional seat, her daughter is now a provincial governor and her son is almost certain to gain a seat in the Senate.

But perhaps Mr Aquino's greatest challenge is to step out of the shadow of his famous family.

Statues, parks, stadiums, and even the international airport named are after his parents, but until he ran for president Noynoy himself was relatively unknown.

Critics say he looks uneasy and lacks charisma, while a recent blog in the Huffington Post describes him as "Mr Vanilla of Manila".

His first challenge has to be to prove his detractors wrong - and show he has the strength to be this nation's new leader.



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