CAMPAIGN posters went up and jingles blared at election rallies yesterday, the start of the campaign season for the May 10 national and local elections.

In Cagayan de Oro and elsewhere in Region 10, local politicians rallied supporters of their respective presidential candidates with parades and speeches. Local candidates, however, were careful in promoting their candidacies, as they are not yet officially allowed to campaign; they can only do so starting March 26.

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Reflecting the current neck and neck survey ratings of Senators Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III (Liberal Party) and Manuel "Manny" Villar (Nacionalista Party), supporters from both camps were the only noticeable political groups greeting the campaign season with parades and rallies. The Abamin partylist headed by the younger brother of Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez (2nd district), Maximo, held its own motorcade.

Led by Misamis Oriental Representative Yevgeny Vincente Emano, Villar’s group gathered at the Divisoria Kiosk in the afternoon.

Aquino’s supporters flocked to the same venue in a torch parade at in the evening.

Catchy jingles of both camps were played as their supporters chant their candidate’s name.

Villar and Aquino—son of the late Corazon Aquino—are promising a clean government and fresh start for the country after nine years of President Gloria Maca-agal-Arroyo’s tumultuous rule dotted with coup attempts and corruption allegations.

The Cagayan de Oro City Police Office no election-related incident was recorded on the first day of the campaign season.

Throughout the country, however, at least a dozen people already gunned down in the run-up to the May 10 polls. This as the country still reels from an election-related massacre late last year that claimed 57 lives in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao. About 130 people were killed during the last elections in 2007.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) have set up checkpoints in a nationwide crackdown on unlicensed guns, and PNP spokesman Leonardo Espina said operations were continuing to disarm nearly 100 private armies on the payroll of political warlords.

A candidate for the city council in southern Cotabato was traveling with his two young children Monday when three gunmen flagged him down and shot him dead before fleeing, police reported.

Aquino had an early head start in popularity thanks to his family name, but recent opinion polls put the two major candidates in a statistical dead heat, with analysts suggesting Villar’s lavish campaign spending has allowed him to catch up.

"I am spending my own money," said Villar, who rose from the poor to make his fortune in real estate before entering politics. Speaking at a presidential forum Monday, he said there was a danger when candidates are indebted to political donors.

In a jab at Aquino, he said, "I don’t have a mother who was president. No sibling who’s an actress. It is imperative that people like me, who were once poor, are given a chance to level the playing field."

Villar, 60, narrowly avoided censure by his colleagues in the Senate for his alleged role in the rerouting of a highway so that it passes close to his real estate developments. He said the charges are trumped up.

Aquino, 50, has anchored his campaign on fighting corruption and restoring the credibility of the judiciary and Congress, which he says have been seriously eroded by Arroyo.

But he is also struggling to step out from the shadow of his mother, Corazon Aquino, who fought against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and was swept to power in the 1986 "people power" revolt. Her death from cancer in August led to a massive outpouring of grief.

"I speak my mind and I follow my own guides, my own leads," Aquino said Monday when asked how much influence his family has on his campaign. "I will have to be democratic and indulgent even with ideas opposite of mine. That is the essence of democracy."

Former Defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro, the administration’s candidate, is trailing behind Villar and Aquino but hopes to catch up in the next three months. He has defended his loyalty to Arroyo and said prosecuting her after she leaves office was not on his agenda.

Aquino supports filing anti-corruption cases against Arroyo, his former economics teacher. (DVAIII/AP)