Manila (Philippines): Philippine president apparent, Benigno Aquino III, and nominees to what he pledged would be a lean, graft-free Cabinet promised Wednesday to travel overseas less, investigate corruption and renew peace talks on ending decadeslong insurgencies.
With the vote count nearly complete, Aquino began assembling his Cabinet from the ranks of defectors from outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo`s administration. One ministerial nominee said bloated contracts, especially from Arroyo`s last six months in office, would be investigated before being honored.
Despite lackluster terms as congressman and senator, Aquino is set to become president after winning wide support in Monday`s election, largely due to the political legacy of his democracy icon parents. He has 41.8 percent of votes in the nine-way race, with votes from 88.56 percent of precincts counted by midday Wednesday.
The Commission on Elections stopped giving further updates on the vote count, after candidates noted it could pre-empt the congressional count scheduled for May 24.
Only Congress can proclaim the winner for president and vice president.
Aquino`s closest rival, former President Joseph Estrada, had 26.5 percent of the tally so far.
Aquino — whose father was assassinated while opposing Ferdinand Marcos` dictatorship and whose mother led the 1986 "people power" revolt that restored democracy — will inherit a Southeast Asian nation grappling with poverty and debilitated by decades-long Marxist and Muslim insurgencies, military unrest, corruption, violent crimes and political strife.
"Our country badly needs this shot in the arm," said Corazon Soliman, the first to accept a Cabinet post from Aquino. "We have been given a second chance to do this right."
Soliman defected, along with several other Cabinet members, from Arroyo`s administration in July 2005 amid a vote-rigging scandal that nearly forced her from power. Soliman and her colleagues had called for Arroyo`s resignation and backed Aquino.
A committee will help Aquino form a Cabinet before he takes his oath June 30, selecting people "with integrity, honesty and no track record of corrupt practices," Soliman told The Associated Press.
Aquino announced Tuesday that Soliman accepted his offer to return to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. He repeated a campaign promise to use his first days in the presidency to wage a battle against corruption.
"I will not only not steal, but I`ll have the corrupt arrested," Aquino, 50, told reporters in his first comments since Monday`s polls. Massive corruption has long dogged the Philippines, tainting electoral politics and skimming billions of public funds in a country already struggling to pay off a huge foreign debt.
Bloated government contracts, especially those signed in the final six months under Arroyo, "will be reviewed before honored," Soliman said.
In a bid to save money, Aquino told The AP that he would avoid foreign trips and trim his Cabinet. During her nine years in power, Arroyo enlarged her Cabinet to more than 40 heads of departments and agencies.
Aquino said his government will focus on combating smuggling and cleaning up the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Customs and other revenue-generating agencies.
Teresita Deles, who also defected from Arroyo in 2005, said Aquino will immediately reconstitute a peace talks panel negotiating with communist New People`s Army rebels, who have been waging a rural-based Marxist rebellion since the late 1960s, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is fighting for Muslim self-rule in the southern Philippines.
The negotiations have separately stalled under Arroyo.
Aquino campaigned on a strong anti-graft platform and promised to restore integrity to Congress and the judiciary. He told AP last week that he will create a commission to look into allegations against Arroyo, his former economics professor.
Arroyo was accused of vote-rigging in 2004 and implicated in several scandals that led to coup attempts and moves to impeach her. Calls for her prosecution have been an important campaign issue. Nevertheless, she ran for a House seat on Monday, winning with more than 90 percent of the votes in her home province of Pampanga.
Still, Aquino`s political appeal largely stems from that of his parents.
It was only after former President Corazon Aquino died of cancer last August that her son, a quiet lawmaker and bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief for the leader who helped oust Marcos in 1986. She had inherited the mantle of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr., an opposition senator gunned down by soldiers at Manila`s airport in 1983 upon return from U.S. exile to challenge Marcos.
"My father`s statement that `the Filipinos are worth dying for,` just recently they were ridiculing that," Aquino said Tuesday, thanking Filipinos for supporting him.
With him as president, Aquino said, "we will finally finish the fight."