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Who will be the next PH president? Tight race begins

MANILA, Philippines – A cliffhanger race to lead the Philippines began Tuesday, February 9, with emotion-charged rallies by a dead movie star's adopted daughter, a politician who brags about killing criminals, and other top contenders.

The 3-month election campaign got under way with 5 aspirants standing a genuine chance of succeeding popular President Benigno Aquino III, who is limited by the constitution to a single term.

In the morning of Tuesday, just before candidates' proclamation rallies began, Laylo Research Strategies released the results of its latest survey showing Senator Grace Poe – the actor's daughter – as the most preferred for the presidency. She was a few percentage points ahead of 3 contenders, who were statistically tied.

The Philippines has endured a turbulent democracy since emerging from the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship 3 decades ago – with coups, corruption, celebrities and violence dominating politics.

Marcos' son and namesake, in fact, is running for vice president in this election. (READ: Miriam to Ilocanos: If something happens to me, Marcos to take charge)

The run-up to the May 9 polls for president, as well as for thousands of other posts, promises more chaos and intrigue.

Sen. Grace Poe starts her presidential bid in Plaza Miranda, Quiapo, Manila on Feb. 9, 2016.

Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

The current presidential front-runner is Grace Poe, an inexperienced politician riding a wave of popularity among the tens of millions of poor for her adopted father, Fernando Poe Jr.

He became one of the nation's most loved actors by playing characters who championed the poor, then nearly translated that into political success by coming second in the 2004 presidential elections.

'Bullies and oppressors'

At her proclamation rally in Plaza Miranda, Poe borrowed a line from one of her father's blockbuster movies: "puno na ang salop," a Tagalog figure of speech for having had enough.

"Puno na ang salop ng kahirapan, puno na ang salop ng katiwalian. Dapat na itong kalusin," she said.

Poe also went back to her "dramatic" life story as a foundling and how this is being used against her now. She stressed that, like many voters who experience hurt and discrimination, she had her own "hugot" – a popular expression among young people that means deep sentiment.

Poe promised to fight for the millions of poor Filipinos who have largely not felt the benefits of strong economic growth under Aquino.

"I stand before you today as a Filipino, a woman who knows how to fight bullies and oppressors, a leader with a heart that loves our country and people," Poe said, while repeatedly referring to her father.  (FULL TEXT: Grace Poe: Ipaglalaban ko ang mga may hugot)

Poe, 47, began the presidential campaign as the front runner with about 30 percent support, according to two national surveys released in recent days.

But opponents have petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify Poe, arguing she cannot prove she is a "natural-born Filipino" because she does not know who her biological parents are.

The Supreme Court could also disqualify Poe for failing to meet residency rules, because she spent many years living in the United States and gained US citizenship before renouncing it and returning home. On Tuesday, the High Court resumed oral arguments on her case.

If Poe is knocked out, with a court ruling expected during the campaign, the nation would be plunged into political turmoil with 3 contenders who are currently each polling about 20 percent support ready to pounce.

Pres. Benigno Aquino III launch the Roxas-Robredo campaign in Capiz on Feb. 9, 2016.

Photo courtesy of the Malacanang Photo Bureau

Aquino, who has overseen growth averaging 6.2% since 2010 and won international applause for trying to fight corruption, wants to hand over to longtime ally Mar Roxas. (FULL TEXT: Mar Roxas: 'Tagumpay ng bawat pamilyang Pilipino')

However Roxas, 58, a US-educated investment banker from one of the nation's richest families, has consistently trailed in the polls. 

Analysts blame a lack of charisma and Roxas sought in his rally Tuesday to remedy his perceived inability to connect with the poor. (READ: What's not working for Mar Roxas)

"We will make sure that every family is free from hunger, free from fear and free to dream," Roxas, who served as interior and transport ministers in the Aquino government, told supporters in his home province of Capiz. (READ: Mar Roxas: No one can stop us)

'There will be blood' 

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte launch his bid for the presidency in Tondo, Manila on Feb. 9, 2016.

Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Controversial populist politician Rodrigo Duterte, 70, who is making a spectacular charge for the presidency by vowing a ruthless crackdown on crime, headed to Manila's most famous slum to launch his campaign.

Human rights groups have accused Duterte of running vigilante "death squads" that killed more than 1,000 suspected criminals during his many years as mayor of the southern city of Davao.

In various public events, Duterte has acknowledged the existence of the death squads, boasted specifically of killing alleged drug traffickers and offered more of the same for the rest of the country.

"There will be killings. There will be a lot of blood," Duterte said this week as he pledged to wipe the streets clean of criminals if he was president.

Vice President Jejomar Binay in Welfareville in Mandaluyong on Feb. 9, 2016 for the start of his presidential bid.

Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

The final major contender is Jejomar Binay, who heads the main opposition party and is the current vice president -- the nation's two top posts are elected separately. (READ: Binay: 'This is the eve of our freedom from poverty')

Binay, 73, has spent decades building a vast political machine but has had to endure a barrage of corruption allegations that have seen him lose his front-runner status.

He denies all the allegations but some analysts expect the Ombudsman to recommend filing charges of corruption against Binay during the campaign. He cannot be brought court, however, while he is vice president, and when he is elected president. 

At their proclamation rally in Batac, Ilocos Norte, on February 9, 2016, presidential candidate Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago (right) and Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Photo by Jasmin Dulay/Rappler

In Batac, Ilocos Norte, the home town of the late dictator Marcos, his son's standard-bearer, Miriam Defensor Santiago, launched her campaign, affirming full support for the "young and idealistic" Marcos Jr.

Santiago, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, delivered a short speech, but made one big promise that resonated with anti-corruption advocates: she will make sure those who stole lawmakers' development funds would be jailed under her presidency.

Ironically, both Santiago and Marcos Jr were among the 100 lawmakers and other individuals who were implicated by a whistleblower in the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam. They both deny the charges, and no cases have been filed against them. – with reports from Karl Malakunas, AFP / Rappler.com