By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine presidential candidates began campaigning in traditionally colorful and musical style on Tuesday ahead of the May 9 election, with voters looking for a leader who can sustain one of the fastest economic growth rates in Asia.
Under President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines has seen annual growth of more than six percent on average, its best five-year record in four decades. He has also managed to rein in, if not halt, corruption.
Party affiliations have historically counted for little in the Philippines and policies have mattered less than personalities. Presidential campaigns are expensive and rely on the support of rich families and companies.
Candidates will be singing and dancing along with movie and TV personalities across the archipelago of 7,100 islands over the next 90 days to gain people's attention before revealing full details of their platforms.
The business community, however, is looking for a leader who can further liberalize the country, easing restrictions on foreign direct investment, reducing protectionism and eliminating red tape in doing business.
"It will be very interesting to see what are the positions of each of the candidates in really easing business here in the country for foreigners and Filipinos," Julian Payne, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, said.
The latest opinion poll shows a first time senator, Grace Poe, abandoned in a church as a baby, ahead of the pack, but analysts say it is too early to make predictions.
A Pulse Asia survey last month pointed to a tight race among Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Aquino's handpicked successor, former interior minister Manuel Roxas.
Senator Miriam Santiago, who had ran and lost two previous presidential elections, is a distant fifth.
Poe led the pack with 30 percent support, while Binay, Duterte and Roxas were not far behind with 23 and 20 percent respectively. In December, Binay topped the polls with 33 percent.
Earl Parreno, of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms, said it would be a tight race to the finish but there's uncertainty about Poe's eligibility because of a dispute about her citizenship and required residency in the country.
Poe, a naturalized American, returned to the Philippines when her adoptive father, who ran for president and lost, died in late 2004. Six years later, she renounced her U.S. citizenship when Aquino appointed her to a government post.
"It's still anybody's ball game because most voters have not really absorbed the candidates' messages," Parreno said, adding poverty and corruption were among the main issues resonating with the electorate.
The campaigning began in festive mood in the capital with Duterte, running on the platform of law and order, holding his proclamation rally in the crime-prone poor community near Manila's docks.
Poe brought together right-wing former soldiers and left-leaning activists at her kick-off campaign in historic Plaza Miranda at the heart of the capital's old city. Binay held a rally in Mandaluyong City, next to Manila's financial district, Makati, where he was mayor for two decades. His wife and son were also mayors.
Roxas barnstormed in his political bailiwick in the central Philippines while Santiago traveled to the north, the political base of her running mate, Ferdinand Marcos, son of Imelda Marcos, widow of the late dictator Ferdinand and famous for her collection of shoes and jewelry.
More than 54 million Filipinos are choosing a new president, vice president, about 300 lawmakers in the two-chamber Congress and about 18,000 local government positions.
(Additional Reporting by Karen Lema: Editing by Nick Macfie)