May 8, 2004  (STAR) (AFP) - President Gloria Arroyo Saturday increased her poll lead on the last day of the Philippine election campaign and appealed for an end to the "air of hate" hanging over the country.

A final poll by the independent Social Weather Stations group gave Arroyo 37 percent of the vote for Monday's elections compared to 30 percent for main rival Fernando Poe, a film star who dropped out of school aged 15.

The last SWS survey two weeks ago had Arroyo leading by less than five percentage points, but Poe shrugged off the result as he prepared for a rally in Manila expected to draw up to one million supporters.

"If they say they are ahead in the surveys, why are they still panicking?" said Poe, who draws most of his support from the poor and has alarmed the business elite and financial markets with his poor grasp of issues.

As fears of violent unrest and unsubstantiated coup rumours continued to swirl around the Southeast Asian nation, Arroyo called for unity and warned all members of the military to stay out of politics.

"Let us now clear the air of hate and recrimination and prepare for an election that is befitting our most cherished democratic traditions," said Arroyo as she campaigned in slum areas near the presidential palace.

Arroyo, who was the victim of a failed military rebellion by junior officers in July last year, also called on armed forces chiefs to "summarily punish any military personnel engaged in partisan activities."

The presidential polls are only the third since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was forced out 18 years ago, and the fragile democracy has been repeatedly tested by coups.

The head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, Friday expressed grave fears after the church was contacted by a group of unnamed colonels who alleged attempts were underway to rig the polls.

The warning came after Arroyo's camp accused the opposition of planning violence as a pretext for a coup.

The drumbeat of rumour and black propaganda became so loud that Senator Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, implicated in at least eight coup attempts over two decades, went on television Friday to deny any looming plot.

"Massive (military) intervention at this point would be the last thing we need," he said, while also expressing fears about widespread fraud.

The removal of ex-president Joseph Estrada in a military-backed uprising in January 2001 remains the cause of much bitterness. Many poor believe their champion was unlawfully pushed out by vice president Arroyo and the elite.

Estrada remains under arrest at a military camp charged with fraud, while Arroyo, 57, is seeking a first popular mandate.

A US-trained economist and key Asian ally of the United States, Arroyo has presented herself as a safe pair of hands to manage the economy and has the support of big business.

Poe, 64, is a close friend of Estrada and has portrayed himself as an honest man unsullied by the dirty politics of the Philippines. Most Filipinos believe Estrada is financing Poe in exchange for a pardon.

A huge security operation involving 17,000 extra police and troops in Manila alone has swung into action amid fears of attacks by the Al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah groups.

Over 90 people have been killed during the election campaign, three in a shoot-out in the north on Saturday. Most killings have involved local disputes or have been linked to Communist rebels.

Some 43 million voters scattered around 7,100 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago will elect a president, vice president, 12 Senators, 200 Congressmen and 17,000 local posts.

Five candidates are running for president. The SWS poll gave former police chief Panfilo Lacson 11 percent, independent reformer Raul Roco six percent and television evangelist Eddie Villanueva four percent.

The election battle has been fought largely on personality, ignoring pressing issues such as poverty, a looming debt crisis, Muslim and Communist insurgencies and birth control.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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