MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine presidential hopefuls held mass rallies on Saturday in a festival-like finale to a divisive campaign and called on voters to block firebrand frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte’s path to the presidency.
Pop stars, celebrities and scantily clad dancers entertained big crowds across Manila, two days from an election shaken up by a last-gasp appeal from President Benigno Aquino for a united front to stop Duterte converting his runaway popularity into victory.
Philippine politics is no stranger to controversial characters and opponents of the maverick mayor are alarmed by his incendiary rhetoric and advocacy of extrajudicial killings as a deterrent against rampant crime and illegal drugs.
But there were no signs of Aquino’s appeal working after two candidates rejected a pact. Some experts said it could backfire on Aquino’s chosen successor, Manuel Roxas, who warned the country was headed towards a Duterte dictatorship.
“They will destroy everything that we have done, everything that has been achieved and we will not let it happen,” Roxas told a crowd of some 30,000 people. “We won’t give up this fight. This is the good fight, the fight for our lives.”
At the same rally, outgoing leader Aquino made a final appeal for voters to come out and stop Duterte.
“I can’t do it alone. I need all of you,” he said.
‘MAN WHO KILLS’
Duterte, the long-time mayor of Davao City, campaigns with a logo of a clenched fist and has repeatedly vowed to shoot dead criminals who put up violent resistance. In final opinion polling he had a sizable 11-point lead over Senator Grace Poe, with Roxas a close third.
Duterte, 71, is the alternative candidate, often likened to Donald Trump and considered both an entertainer and a loose cannon. Police estimated his rally on Saturday drew an estimated 300,000 supporters, far eclipsing the crowds of his rivals.
He reiterated his promise to eliminate crime in six months.
“I‘m staking my life and honour on this presidency. I will do it,” he said of his war on crime.
Poe took a swipe at him and said the country could not be led by an “executioner”.
“Are we going to choose a corrupt and insensitive man who kills?” she told supporters. “I‘m not perfect, but we need leaders with compassion.”
Experts say Duterte’s recent surge and Poe’s popularity as the adopted daughter of a famous movie star represents public disenchantment with Aquino’s administration.
That sentiment has perplexed investors and some Western governments, given the robust performance of the Philippine economy under Aquino. However, criticism by opponents that the economic improvement has not translated into jobs or better livelihoods for millions of poor appears to be resonating.
Poe’s pro-investment, anti-poverty platform is striking a chord and some experts have suggested some voters who were expected to back Roxas might instead get behind Poe, setting the stage for a bitter, two-way fight with Duterte.
“This is a highly divisive election, an election that’s very emotional. A lot is at stake,” political analyst Aries Arugay said.
Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Mark Heinrich