Philippines' turbulent election season kicks off

Violence has long tarnished Philippine politics with the assassination of mayor Randy Climaco marking the start of the polling season.

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MANILA // Gunmen killed a Philippine town mayor and wounded his vice mayor and at least three other companions in an ambush on Monday while they were travelling in a van in a far-flung southern region.

The assassination of mayor Randy Climaco came as the country’s election season began, with politicians registering for thousands of posts, launching a typically raucous and deadly seven months of campaigning in a famously chaotic democracy.

A successor to President Benigno Aquino will be chosen in the six-yearly polls, with the frontrunners a savvy politician accused of corruption, the adopted daughter of a movie star and a low-key stalwart of the ruling Liberal Party.

Violence has long tarnished Philippine politics, especially in remote rural regions burdened with weak law enforcement, illegal firearms, political and clan conflicts and decades-long insurgencies.

Mayor Climaco and his companions had come from a village fiesta and were returning home in a van when they came under attack in his town of Tungawan in Zamboanga Sibugay province. The heavily-armed attackers escaped, police said.

Gov Wilter Palma said Tungawan vice mayor Abduraup Abison was in serious condition in a hospital after being shot in the head.

Climaco’s term as mayor was due to end next year and a cousin who was planning to run in next year’s elections to succeed him was travelling with him but escaped unhurt, Mr Palma said.

Investigators were trying to determine the identity of the gunmen and the motive of the attack. Muslim rebels and other outlaws have a presence in Zamboanga Sibugay, about 800 kilometers south of Manila, but it was not immediately clear if they had a role in the attack.

Mr Aquino, who has won international plaudits for tackling systemic corruption and for his solid economic stewardship, is imploring voters to choose longtime ally Mar Roxas to continue his “straight path” style of governance.

“This is a campaign to continue the straight path, a campaign to make our hopes possible, a campaign that will continue the heroic story of the Filipino people,” the president said at a rally to announce the Liberal Party’s Senate ticket.

But Mr Roxas has struggled in opinion polls and is facing strong challenges from Jejomar Binay, the current vice president who is being investigated for graft, and Grace Poe, a political novice riding on her late father’s popularity.

The start of a week-long registration process began on Monday for more than 18,000 positions – from the presidency down to village captain level – in the May elections.

The Philippines has struggled to establish a stable democracy, with many of the problems blamed on dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s rule from 1965-1986.

Another feature of the Philippines’ democracy has been politicians resorting to violence to eliminate rivals or cheating to rig polls.

The most infamous incident occurred in 2009, when the warlord family of a southern province allegedly massacred 58 people to try to stop a rival registering his candidacy for provincial governor.

Another enduring challenge for the nation’s democracy has been the power of elite clans who dominate national, provincial and local posts, according to political analysts.

“Philippine politics has always been governed by the elite... I don’t think the dynasties will change,” Ateneo University political science professor Benito Lim said.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse