Democracy icons' son ready to lead Philippines with 'people power'-style campaign

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Returning to the Manila highway where 1986 "people power" protests led by his mother ousted a dictator and swept her to power, Benigno Aquino III asked a huge, yellow-clad crowd to seize the moment and help him win next week's presidential election.

"My parents were my role models," he told some 10,000 supporters at Sunday's rally. "They could have chosen to live a life of luxury, shut their eyes, played deaf, sealed their lips and forget that multitudes of Filipinos have been neglected. But no, they chose the thorny path and made painful sacrifices."

Aquino, seldom considered as a presidential candidate until less than a year ago, decided to enter the race only in September, after his mother's death sparked an outpouring of national grief.

The 50-year-old senator has surged ahead in the nine-way race for the May 10 presidential polls, riding a wave of poignant memories and unrealized hopes of the 1986 revolt.

His rise reflects the public's longing to fill a moral vacuum in a country plagued by corruption, poverty and violence. For many voters, it's been nearly a quarter century of disappointment since his mother, Corazon "Cory" Aquino, toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and ushered in democracy.

Aquino's father, an opposition senator, was shot to death in 1983 while in military custody on the tarmac of Manila's airport as he returned from U.S. exile to challenge Marcos. The killing sparked massive protests led by his widow which culminated in the army-backed 1986 "people power" uprising that ended Marcos' repressive 20-year regime.

With little legislative record to speak of, Aquino has emphasized his clean public image.

"My particular mode of governance, my conduct while in public office — and even as the son of my mother perhaps when she was president — is in direct contrast to that which has brought us to lower levels," Aquino said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The latest public opinion survey by independent pollster Pulse Asia showed 39 percent of respondents backing Aquino. Fellow Senator Manny Villar and former President Joseph Estrada were tied in second place, trailing Aquino by 19 percentage points.

The April 23 to 25 survey of 1,800 adults nationwide had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

"When Cory died, minds were opened and they realized that Noynoy could be the one," said political analyst Ramon Casiple, referring to Aquino by his nickname.

Corruption scandals and unrest have hounded President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is stepping down after nine years because of term limits.

Casiple said Aquino has a sense of the overriding priorities: repairing democratic institutions and cracking down on corruption.

Ernesto del Rosario, a 62-year-old former chauffeur who took part in the 1986 uprising, rooted for Aquino at Sunday's campaign event.

"It was like the (1986) revolution," del Rosario said, after watching yellow confetti rain down on Aquino, vice presidential running mate Sen. Mar Roxas and their senatorial candidates on a stage. Yellow was also the color used by Corazon Aquino and her supporters.

"But the issue now is no longer Marcos," del Rosario said. "It's fighting corruption and helping the poor get work, houses, jobs and medicine."

Asked why he picked Aquino, del Rosario replied, "He'll be like his parents. He won't become a pest to society."

Such adulation has extended to large rallies in several provinces, including in vote-rich Bulacan, north of Manila, where thousands waited in 100-degree Fahrenheit (37-degree Celsius) summer heat last week to cheer him, snap his picture and scramble to get yellow rubber bracelets he tossed to the crowds from a 50-car convoy.

On Wednesday, Aquino won the endorsement of Iglesia ni Cristo, a Christian sect believed to have millions of members and rank 2nd in the country behind Roman Catholicism. The sect traditionally votes as a block and its backing is seen as crucial in the race.

Born to one of the country's wealthiest political clans, Aquino graduated from the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University with an economics degree, then initially took low-key jobs. At one time, he worked as a manager of a company selling Nike shoes.

His friends describe him as an unassuming man with a boy-next-door demeanor, who preferred billiards and listening to his huge collection of jazz CDs to playing golf. He was a gun enthusiast and regaled friends by splitting a playing card placed sideways with a gunshot from several yards (meters) away.

In 1998, he won a seat in the House of Representatives, where he served three terms before being elected to the Senate in 2007.

Without any major legislative accomplishment, critics consider him a political lightweight. Aquino's most important credential became his family name.

Although massively popular, Corazon Aquino struggled in office to meet high public expectations. Her land redistribution program fell short of ending economic domination by the landed elite, including her own family, which owned Hacienda Luisita, one of the country's largest sugar estates.

At least seven failed coups rocked her administration.

In a 1987 attack by mutinous troops on the Malacanang presidential palace complex, Benigno Aquino, then 27, was wounded by a grenade blast and gunfire that killed two of his security escorts and a third officer while he was being driven back to the compound.

He was left for dead sprawled in his car but survived. Grenade shrapnel barely missed a major vein and is still lodged in his neck. A gunshot wound in the leg causes him to walk with a slight limp, according to close friend Rico Puno.

Still a bachelor, Aquino has one more trait that has been a fodder of campaign talk: he has never been linked to any corruption scandal.

"He is seen as an opportunity for change and that's a major factor," said former Senate President Franklin Drilon, who is running for the Senate under Aquino's Liberal Party.

Aquino said he'll make prosecuting corrupt officials a priority, in what would be a marked departure from Arroyo's administration, which is widely accused of turning a blind eye to graft to shield her political allies.

"We can start out with the small fry cause I want to demonstrate within the first week or two that we will be effecting the arrests of certain people who have gotten away with either evasion or smuggling with impunity," Aquino said in Tuesday's interview. "Then we go higher and higher the chain dependent on the amount of evidence that is ready."

That, he said, sends a message to everybody: "Stop it, do your share or face the consequences."