Chaotic Count In Philippines

With administration candidates slightly leading exit polls and very early counts, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called for national unity Tuesday after deadly, divisive local and congressional elections.

"Let's be united again. It's time for healing," Arroyo said, a day after elections seen as a power struggle between her and the man she replaced and helped oust, jailed former President Joseph Estrada.

An exit poll by Social Weather Stations (SWS) pollsters released late Tuesday showed Arroyo's candidates could grab eight of the 13 key Senate seats, with four going to opposition and the other to an independent.

Political analysts said the high turnout in Monday's polls may well have favored candidates of Estrada's Power of the Masses coalition, denting Arroyo's hopes of a crushing victory in elections seen as a test of her legitimacy. Turnout was estimated at 85 percent of the 36.1 million voters.

Opposition senators, according to the SWS survey of 5,446 voters with a margin of error of 1.5 percent, could include Estrada's wife, Loi Ejercito, a moderate opposition senator and two men Arroyo accuses of plotting to violently oust her.

Asked if "healing" could include those two, former national police chief Panfilo Lacson and Sen. Gregorio Honasan, running for re-election, Arroyo said she would "pray about it."

Arroyo said Honasan and Lacson instigated violence on May 1 when 50,000 Estrada supporters, angered by his April 25 arrest on corruption charges, stormed the presidential palace. At least six died and more than 100 were wounded as security forces fought them off.

Tuesday morning, gunmen killed a policeman during a ballot box heist and suspected rebels abducted a mayoral candidate as officials continued the plodding process of gathering and counting 30 million ballots, many of them from jungle villages and remote mountain towns on the Philippines' 7,107 islands.

Gunfights, arson at polling stations and attacks on rallies during and after Monday's vote brought political killings to 73 since campaigning began in January for 17,600 local, provincial and congressional posts.

No conclusive results are expected for days. Officials need to compile figures from 234,259 precincts.

Since the vote, armed men burned ballot boxes in two central Philippine towns and attackers firing from a motorboat injured three people in a rally in a coastal municipality. Supporters of rival candidates exchanged gunfire in more than a dozen villages and towns from north to south.

Police Supt. Rojillo Montijo said suspected communist rebels abducted Mayor Zemaida Doria, who had run for re-election in Mayorja town, some 370 miles southeast of Manila.

Besides violence, missing ballot boxes and incomplete voter lists plagued parts of the country.

Estrada, who is awaiting trial on economic plunder charges punishable by death or life imprisonment, won power in 1998 with strong support among the urban poor who identified with the underog action hero he played in many movies.

Arroyo took office in January after the military joined anti-Estrada street protests.

Confidence in the struggling economy has plunged and the business community wants a strong showing by Arroyo to reassure investors.

The deaths in this year's election-related violence were up from 45 in 1998 but still well below the record of about 905 in 1971.

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