In most of the world's democracies, the victory of a dynasty rarely means a mandate for change. But most of the world's democracies are not the Philippines. With the majority of votes cast in the May 10 national elections counted, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, scion of the country's most beloved political family, looks poised to win the Philippine presidency by a landslide. His success, according to supporters, is a sign not only of the potency of the Aquino name but of a popular yearning in this impoverished archipelago nation for hope and better governance.
This year's ballot the first to be automated decided the winners of more than 17,000 seats, from local city councils to the presidential palace in Manila. As is expected in a country whose elections in the past have been marked by allegations of voter fraud as well as widespread violence, polling day this week didn't go without controversy. At least 12 people have been killed in separate incidents across the country; one candidate for a deputy mayoral seat was reportedly abducted, while gunfights between rivals broke out in a constituency in the country's insurgency-ravaged South.
Still, the polls are being hailed as generally fair and well run, given the remoteness of and lack of infrastructure in many of the nation's far-flung islands. Pre-election fears of malfunctioning machines scuppering the vote now seem overblown.
Facing nine other presidential candidates, Aquino claimed at least 40% of the vote leading his nearest competitor, former President and movie star Joseph Estrada, by an unassailable margin of more than 5 million votes. While neither he nor the Philippines' election commission have made an official declaration, many of Aquino's chief rivals have conceded defeat. Manny Villar, an influential politician and wealthy businessman who was running neck and neck with Aquino in voter surveys ahead of the elections, declared at a May 11 press conference that "the Filipino people have decided. I congratulate Noynoy Aquino for his victory."
The electoral triumph is a momentous step up for a man who has lived in the shadow of his parents' legacy for decades. Aquino's father, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., was a leading champion of democracy in the country before being assassinated in 1983 by gunmen now believed to have been agents of the then dictatorial President Ferdinand Marcos. His mother, Corazon Aquino, then took up the mantle of democracy, becoming the figurehead of the famous People Power movement of 1986 that ended Marcos' reign and eventually placed her as President.
Aquino, whose own political career as a Representative and later a Senator in the Philippine Congress was rather undistinguished compared with those of many of his rivals, emerged as a candidate in the presidential race only after his mother's death last August. A wave of public grief and emotion, coupled with the backing of Aquino's four sisters, persuaded the soft-spoken, unmarried 50-year-old to run. "To say that I had mixed feelings would be an understatement," Aquino told TIME from his mother's old residence in Manila two months before the May elections. "But I was put in a situation where if I chose not to, I'd probably not be able to live with my conscience if things got worse."
The problems that ail the Philippines are legion and well cataloged from one of the richest countries in Asia in the 1950s, second only to Japan, it has become the continent's proverbial "sick man," weighed down by years of military rule, endemic corruption and a fractious, feudal political culture. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the outgoing President, is widely pilloried for perceived graft as well as allegations of electoral fraud during the previous round of national elections, in 2004. Arroyo is expected to be elected to Congress and is likely to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, a position from which she can still wield considerable influence.
Aquino has gone on record saying that he intends to investigate Arroyo's alleged vote-rigging when in power. While his campaign was boosted by the aura of his parents' legacy, it also capitalized on his own impeccably clean and upright reputation. In a statement to local reporters on May 11, Aquino promised, "I will not only not steal, but I will run after thieves." Fighting corruption is No. 1 on Aquino's agenda he claims graft costs the national budget a staggering $6 billion a year. Cutting it out of the system would go a long way toward helping the two-fifths of the country's 90 million people who live on less than $2 a day.
But Aquino was hardly the sole candidate promising to curb poverty and improve governance most of his rivals did as well. The hurly-burly of pre-election campaigning in the Philippines is often a carnival of frenzied rallies and star-filled spectacles that smother whole cities and towns in a tapestry of competing political banners. Some of the flashier characters on the way to victory in this week's polls include Imelda Marcos, famed hoarder of shoes and wife of the now deceased dictator, and Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, a near deity in the country. Both were running for seats in the House.
Indeed, a candidate's celebrity or catchy theme song can make more impact than the intricacies of his or her platform. For the balding, mild-mannered Aquino, his winning luster proved to be his sheer trustworthiness. "He just symbolizes hope for everyone," says Martin Bautista, a Filipino-American doctor who left his practice in Oklahoma to run for Senate, unsuccessfully, under the Aquino ticket. Of course, Aquino's last name doesn't hurt. "There's like an umbilical cord between the Aquino family and the nation," says Kris Aquino, his youngest sister and a celebrity-talk-show host.
Critics, though, find little to celebrate in the family pedigree. Both of Aquino's parents came from the sort of landed, aristocratic clans that have dominated the politics of both Manila and the provinces that serve as their strongholds. Richard Gordon, a politician renowned for his sterling track record of no-nonsense governance and one of the defeated candidates for President complained to TIME ahead of the elections of a "culture of patronage" that dampens talent and meritocracy in the country. "I'm my own man," he says. "[Aquino] has never had to run a city, a town, even his own business."
During his campaign, Aquino took these criticisms in stride, speaking repeatedly of his desire and ability to resolve the Philippines' great inequities. "I am from the class that has in a sense benefited from the status quo, but everyone still gets victimized," he said in a March interview with TIME. Aquino described then the final moments he shared with his father, who in 1983 left their house in exile in Boston to attempt to resolve his differences with the Marcos regime, only to be infamously murdered on the Manila airport tarmac. "I was in the garage before he got into the car," says Aquino. "The last thing that happened was that he looked at me and nodded his head. It was as if to say, 'You know everything you're supposed to do.' " A whole nation now hopes its new President's father was right.