MANILA, Philippines – Filipinos voted for president Monday in a contest that pits an incumbent who strongly backs the U.S. war on terror against an action movie star, but the run up to the contest was marred by attacks that killed nine people.
The final pre-election polls showed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (search) pulling ahead of actor Fernando Poe Jr. (search), but the surveys also indicated as many as one-quarter of the nation's 43 million voters were undecided.
Gun and grenade attacks killed nine people before the polls opened, authorities said, and there were reports of abductions, a fire and election law violations. No major incidents were reported during the first hours of voting, although some people complained they were turned away because their names were not on voter lists.
"I'll just go home. My vote was wasted," said an exasperated housewife, 53-year-old Elsa Quibuyen, who gave up without voting.
Filipinos also cast ballots for vice president, Senate and House members and local officials.
With ballots counted by hand, officials said it could take a month before final results are announced. One pollster planned to release results of an exit poll Tuesday.
"Our future as a free country rests on this election," Arroyo told reporters, showing off an index finger stained with indelible ink, a procedure to prevent double voting in a nation with a history of electoral fraud. "An election equalizes power. Let us guard our future."
Poe voted earlier amid a swarm of journalists. "It's now up to the people to make their choices," he said.
Arroyo's administration and Poe's camp have accused each other of plots to steal the election, either by cheating or violence.
About 230,000 troops and police took up positions before the polls opened Monday, which was a national holiday. Last month, police said they broke up a terror cell, foiling what authorities described as plans to carry out bombings in the capital.
Arroyo curtailed the last week of her campaign schedule, citing a possible assassination plot.
Poe's friend and colleague, former President Joseph Estrada (search), is on trial for corruption after being forced from office by mass protests in January 2001. Estrada was replaced halfway through his term by Arroyo, his vice president and political foe. He voted in a white tent put up near his detention house in an army camp.
Daughter of a former president, Arroyo is backed by the financial community, two influential Christian groups and considerable political machinery.
She is one of Washington's biggest backers in the war on terrorism, and has weathered two reported coup attempts, with rumors of many more, while simultaneously dealing with terror attacks.
Poe, a five-time winner in the local Oscars, is a high school dropout popular among the poor for his portrayals of a fast-punching, straight-shooting underdog hero.
Also up for grabs are 12 of the 24 Senate seats and all seats in the House of Representatives, and some 17,000 other posts all the way down to the neighborhood level.
The presidential election is the third since mass protests in 1986 forced dictator Ferdinand Marcos to flee into exile in Hawaii, where he later died. The "people power" revolution gave encouragement to other pro-democracy movements around the world.
On Sunday, unidentified men hurled a grenade in front of the campaign headquarters of a mayoral candidate, killing two people and wounding another in suburban Caloocan in metropolitan Manila, said police director Marcelino Franco.
Three shooting incidents in the south killed seven supporters of mayoral candidates, and a military spokesman warned violence could escalate.
Election officials also reported an explosion that set off a fire that gutted portions of a building and destroyed election documents in the central town of Taft in Eastern Samar province.
Elections director Ferdinand Rafanan said tens of thousands of election campaign documents loaded in two vans were confiscated by police in the region. Police were also checking reports of vote-buying in one area, he said.
A national police spokesman, Chief Supt. Joel Goltiao, said authorities were checking two reports of abductions, including a supporter of a mayoral candidate in Rodriguez town in Rizal, east of Manila.