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Q&A: What to watch for in Philippines elections

Campaigning for the Philippines elections kicked off this week in familiar style, with famous names dominating the ballots and already 60 people killed in political violence. Here’s what to look for ahead of the May polls.

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One issue that may generate some heat, at least in the capital, Manila, is constitutional change. Arroyo toyed with the idea of converting an often-gridlocked presidential system of government into a British-style parliament. Villar has said charter change would not be a priority under his presidency.

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Candidates will probably score points by deriding Arroyo’s record and seek to weaken Mr. Teodoro, who is seen as Arroyo’s preferred candidate. Analysts say Arroyo may quietly throw her support and the powerful state apparatus behind another candidate if Teodoro fails to make headway in the polls.

What are the implications for the peace process in Mindanao?

Arroyo restarted peace talks last year with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest insurgent group in Mindanao. Most candidates appear to support these talks, though none have gone into specifics about how far they are prepared to grant autonomy to MILF-dominated areas, a key demand.

The clearest stance put forward is that of Estrada, says Amina Rasul, director of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy in Manila. But his solution is “a return to all-out war in Mindanao,” she says. Other candidates are less bellicose but haven’t staked out strong positions.

What is the chance of a smooth campaign and voting?

Philippine elections often turn violent. In 2004, the official toll of election-related killings was 148. More than 60 have died in the current campaign. That figure includes 57 killed in a single incident, a massacre carried out last November against a political family in Mindanao, allegedly by a rival clan with close ties to Arroyo. On Monday, a candidate for a city council in Mindanao who was gunned down near his home.

Election officials have imposed a strict ban on carrying firearms and set up checkpoints manned by police officers. Similar bans were flouted in past campaigns, but the latest scheme appears to be stricter.

A bigger concern is the vote count. Election officials have contracted a private company to install an automated counting system that critics say is behind schedule and riddled with errors. Business leaders in Manila have warned that a system failure could throw the election into chaos. “I don’t think the Philippines can pull off an automated election,” says Scott Harrison, executive director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Manila.

In the event of a disputed vote count, the Supreme Court would be expected to make a ruling. Chief Justice Reynato Puno is due to retire on May 17. But opponents have said Arroyo’s proposal to name a successor violates a constitutional ban on presidential appointments during their last 60 days in office.

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