Among the few democracies in the Far East, the Philippines knows how to put on a show of election exuberance.
On Monday, 34 million voters in the former American colony, which learned politics well from its past master, must fill in 25 names on one ballot to elect leaders from president on down.
At the end of a grueling three-month campaign, the 10 disparate candidates for president reflect the state of Philippine democracy - fledgling, yet with a individualistic body politic that allows anyone to take a shot at the nation's top job, including convicted criminals like the colorful deposed first lady Imelda Marcos.
This will be the Philippines' second free vote since democracy was restored in 1986 by President Corazon Aquino after a 14-year dictatorship under the late Ferdinand Marcos.
In contrast to Asian neighbors such as Indonesia, which hasn't had a free vote in decades, and Cambodia which is trying to hold one in July, the Philippines' transition to constitutional government has inspired democratic forces elsewhere in the region.
Thailand had its democratic Constitution voted in last year, and pro-democracy forces in Burma continue to challenge the military junta.
The Philippines' outgoing president, Fidel Ramos, will step down after a successful stint in bringing the country into the ranks of Asia's emerging economies. Barred by the Constitution from running for a second six-year term, he has reconciled rebellious factions from the left and the right. A former Marcos general, he helped Mrs. Aquino become president in 1986.
Mr. Ramos's likely successor is Joseph Estrada, a former movie star and the current vice president. Reviled by both the middle-class and the dominant Roman Catholic Church, he leads in the polls over Ramos's chosen candidate, House Speaker Jose de Venecia.
Mr. de Venecia's efforts to sink the wildly popular Mr. Estrada by linking him with drug peddlers, gambling lords, and a swashbuckling past of numerous mistresses and illegitimate children have not affected his popularity among the masses. They adore his movie persona as a hero who helped the poor.
The populist surge carrying Estrada close to victory has left the Filipino urban elite, who traditionally have held political power, cringing in despair. Not only do they consider Estrada intellectually weak (he is a college dropout), his mangled English identifies him as an icon of the masses.
The influential Catholic archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, who helped overthrow Marcos, issued a pastoral letter last Sunday calling on voters to reject Estrada, but without naming him. The cardinal's spokesman, Ariston Sison, said that the clergy considers Estrada morally unfit to lead the Philippines. "We know that there are questions about his moral life. There are [also] questions about his competence and his leadership," he said.
The candidate in second place
De Venecia, who built up the ruling Lakas coalition for Ramos, is burdened by the public's negative perception of him as a traditional politician who has been a wheeler and dealer linked to corruption scams.
Both candidates gained political prominence during the Marcos dictatorship and may bring back some of the same people and practices of that era, many people worry. Both de Venecia's and Estrada's circle of advisers, who will occupy key positions in the next government, are former Marcos associates or cronies.
The irony didn't escape some guests gathered at de Venecia's victory party in February to celebrate his winning Ramos's endorsement as the ruling-party candidate. When Mrs. Marcos and her children walked in to congratulate the Speaker, the band struck up the tune "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Both candidates are expected to dismantle agencies set up to prosecute the Marcoses and their cronies, and to retrieve alleged stolen wealth. Hundreds of civil and criminal cases filed in court against the Marcoses are now in limbo.
Both candidates said publicly they would pardon the widow Marcos if elected president, only to claim that they were misquoted when criticized by Manila's rabidly anti-Marcos press.
"Let the law take its course. I'm not president yet," said Estrada recently when questioned about a possible pardon.
Marcos, who withdrew from the race for president last month after not gaining in the polls, is awaiting a final appeal at the Supreme Court, which reaffirmed her 12-year jail sentence in a 1995 conviction for graft.
She vehemently denied she would seek a presidential pardon.
"I'll never ask for or accept a pardon. Principles are nonnegotiable," she insisted during an interview in her luxurious apartment in downtown Makati, surrounded by jade carvings, Michelangelos, Picassos, and Pissaros - art objects she said she bought when she was first lady.