By Enrico Dela Cruz and Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - Outgoing Philippine leader Benigno Aquino on Friday weighed into the contest to replace him by urging presidential candidates to join forces and stop popular maverick mayor Rodrigo Duterte from winning next week's election.
Aquino's intervention, just three days before the vote, came moments after his chosen successor, Manuel Roxas, hastily called a news conference urging rival Grace Poe to join him and uphold "democracy and decency" by thwarting Duterte.
Duterte's promises to wipe out drugs and criminality within six months and his advocacy of extrajudicial killings have struck a chord among Filipinos tired of soaring crime rates.
The administration's push for a pact followed the release of the last opinion poll before Monday's vote, which showed crime-fighting mayor Duterte as top choice for 33 percent of survey respondents, 11 points ahead of nearest rival Poe, with Roxas on 20 percent.
"I am trying to get all of these different voices together and in that sense, perhaps help our candidate get together and have that united front," Aquino told CNN Philippines.
Duterte, 71, was a late entry into the race and analysts say his victory would represent disenchantment with Aquino's administration, despite it overseeing economic growth averaging over six percent annually, the country's best five-year record in four decades.
Aquino said he was talking with Roxas and had exchanged text messages with Poe about them joining forces and it would be good if other candidates, Miriam Santiago and Vice-President Jejomar Binay, allied themselves to beat Duterte.
"Instead of thinking about what shall we do if everything he says is exactly what he intends to do, why don't we remove that problem, or that threat, or that insecurity," he said.
Duterte's spokesman Peter Lavina likened the efforts to thwart his boss to "thieves dividing the loot" and said it was both comical, and "truly sickening".
Neither Aquino nor Roxas explained how an alliance would work, or if any candidates would have to withdraw.
Early reaction suggested Aquino's idea may not get any takers.
Poe, a senator and adopted daughter of Philippine movie stars, said there was no chance she would back down.
"We have been through a lot and what we carry here are the dreams and hopes of our countrymen that should not be compromised," she told a radio station.
Binay's camp described Aquino's call for unity as "hollow" and said he should worry more about ensuring a fair election.
Aquino's pick for the presidency, Roxas, said all candidates had fought "divisive and vicious" campaigns but should now coordinate to sideline Duterte, a man he once called an "executioner".
"Uncertainty and the specter of a dictatorship are looming over our country once again," he said.
Some commentators said Aquino's move could backfire by making Duterte look like a victim. Political science professor Benito Lim said the plan was doomed to fail.
"That simply will not work," he said. "That's not the way people vote now."
(Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel and Toby Chopra)