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Filipinos prepare for May elections

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MANILA, Philippines — Political parties prepared their Senate slates Monday for May elections seen as a referendum on the "people power" revolt that ousted President Joseph Estrada.

Estrada was toppled Jan. 20 in a popular uprising over corruption allegations. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, took over to finish his term, which ends in 2004.

"This will now be an election between those who supported Estrada and those who went against him," said Congressman Ernesto Herrera, among those on Macapagal-Arroyo's Senate slate.

"It's a fight between those who would like to be identified with a government ran by gangs and those who adhere to the law."

More than 3,600 local and congressional positions, including 13 of 24 Senate seats and the entire 208-member House of Representatives, will be contested May 14.

Senate candidates had until midnight Monday to declare their candidacy. Campaigning, often marred by small outbursts of violence in past elections, begins Tuesday.

The filing deadline came as prosecutors readied at least three more witnesses and another corruption-related charge against Estrada. Justice Secretary Hernando Perez said a businessman and two former government officials have agreed to corroborate the testimony of Mark Jimenez, an alleged broker of Estrada's deals.

The 13 senatorial candidates chosen for Macapagal-Arroyo's people power coalition were mostly protest leaders and lawmakers who fought to overthrow Estrada.

"I selected the candidates ... based on their contribution to the success of people power," Arroyo told a business forum.

Macapagal-Arroyo's chief of staff, Renato Corona, said her candidates must be morally fit and "of course, they should have stood against the anomalies of former President Estrada."

A popular television news anchorman, Noli de Castro announced Monday he was running for Senate as an independent.

Estrada has said his once-powerful Party of the Filipino Masses would field as many candidates as possible.

The balloting will give crucial control of Congress to either Macapagal-Arroyo or Estrada.

Macapagal-Arroyo needs a friendly Congress to pass legislation aimed at delivering the country from its deep economic woes.

Estrada's ouster, likened to the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos by a "people power" uprising in 1986, brought him to ignominy.

On Monday, Macapagal-Arroyo's defense secretary said the government had made progress in the last year against one of the Philippines' biggest threats, Muslim guerrillas fighting in the country's south.

Military offensives devastated the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and caused a 16 percent drop in its membership, said Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita. The group has more than 15,000 members.

The communist New People's Army, with 11,000 members, now poses the greater threat, Ermita said. The force posted a 4 percent gain in membership in the last year, he said.

Earlier Monday, about 100 New People's Army rebels swarmed a small military camp in the central Philippine island of Samar, killing 11 soldiers and one militiaman, the military said. The attack was the army's biggest single-day loss in months.