SAN ISIDRO, Philippines (Reuters) - Campaigning for local and congressional polls is rolling into its final week in the Philippines with candidates dispensing cash, food, mascots and even their own brand of underwear to woo voters.
Elections in this Southeast Asian country are renowned for their colourful cast of characters, endemic corruption and violence.
In the village of San Isidro, around 50 km north of Manila, Father Ed Panlilio has swapped his clerical robes for a white bullet-proof vest as he campaigns for the governor's seat in Pampanga, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's home turf.
The Catholic priest, who has been suspended from performing spiritual duties while he focuses on politics, has been getting death threats but vows to keep going with his anti-corruption, anti-Arroyo ticket.
"It's part of the commitment. It's all the way," said the 53-year-old, before boarding a truck festooned with posters of him, in trademark white, looking up to the heavens. "It's a divine crusade based on gospel values."
Panlilio's no-frills campaign relies on donations and volunteers fed up with shady quarrying operations and the province's reputation as a centre for illegal gambling.
His background as a priest carries a lot of weight with devout parishioners in the largely Catholic country.
"We've had gambling lords and quarry lords, why not praise the lord?" said Bert Salvador, 46, a Panlilio supporter.
For politicians who can't rely on divine endorsement, there are the traditional routes to victory -- advertising, handouts and, of course, vote-buying and vote-manipulation.
Public office is a lucrative career in the Philippines and with half the 24 seats in the Senate, all 240 slots in the lower house and nearly 18,000 positions in local government up for grabs on May 14, billions of pesos have already been spent trying to secure posts.
On the official campaign trail, politicians dole out freebies, from roast pork and beer to fresh fish and rice, as well as amulets and insurance policies.
But behind the scenes, candidates' agents dispense cash and favours to get elected. Harassment and intimidation are also employed and smear campaigns are carried out via text message.
Seven out of 10 voters expect vote-buying and half of them think it's okay to accept the cash provided they vote with their conscience, according to a recent survey.
"This is the only time they (the public) can make money out of these people, out of the government," said Benito Lim, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.
"This is the only time they are treated like kings. They sing to them, they plead to them, they organise, they dance before them and say good things about them and give them money."
Across the archipelago, actors-turned-candidates and scions of political dynasties are racing from rally to rally, making speeches, singing jingles and pressing the flesh.
In Manila, a city councillor is appealing to the female vote by giving away underwear with his nickname printed on the rear.
Others are playing on their names or pseudonyms, which can be used on ballot papers. These are important factors because manual polling means that voters have to write out the names of their preferred choices.
Prospero Pichay, a pro-government candidate for the Senate, has created his own mascot, "Super Pichay", a comic book-style figure with his facial features to reach out to the electorate.
The lawmaker, whose last name sounds like "pechay", a variety of local lettuce, has 10 lifesize mascots, complete with blue capes, fibreglass masks and lettuces stuffed down their cummerbunds, attending rallies across the country.
His catchphrase is "Plant in the Senate".
"If it catches the attention of the kids then it should catch the attention of the parents," the candidate reasoned.
But when it comes to name recall, Agakhan Sharief wins hands down. The 36-year-old is using his pseudonym, Osama Bin Laden, to get elected to the council in his province of Lanao del Sur, in the Philippines' Muslim south.
With his beard, turban and neck scarf, Sharief looks like the world's most wanted terror suspect. And it's getting people's attention.
"I'm expecting in this coming election, Inshallah (God willing), a landslide victory for Bin Laden," he said.
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