The official three-month election campaign for national posts, including the president and separately elected vice president and half of the 24-seat Senate, opened under strict anti-virus restrictions.

Covid curbs include a ban on handshakes, kissing, hugging and tightly packed crowds in election rallies.
Covid curbs include a ban on handshakes, kissing, hugging and tightly packed crowds in election rallies. (AP)

The race to lead the Philippines has kicked off, with the son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos the favourite to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte and return his clan to the presidential palace they once fled.

Candidates hit the hustings for the three-month campaign season from Tuesday in a chaotic and colourful charm offensive aimed at wooing millions of voters typically more interested in personality than policy.

More than 35 years after the country emerged from his father's dictatorship, polls showed Ferdinand Marcos Jr heading towards a landslide victory in the May 9 elections.

Boosted by a massive social media campaign and a formidable alliance with first daughter and vice-presidential candidate Sara Duterte, Marcos Jr - one of the most polarising figures in the Philippines - has vowed to "unify the country". 

"This is not the time and place to be arguing about the history of the Philippines," Marcos Jr told broadcaster GMA on Saturday. 

"We need to talk about and discuss what we need to be doing in the next few years in order to give back jobs to people so that they will have money in their pockets."

Incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo - a former lawyer for the disadvantaged and a rival of Marcos Jr and Duterte - is a distant second in voter surveys.

Kicking off her pink-coloured campaign in Lupi town in the central province of Camarines Sur, Robredo told supporters she was "filled with courage because you are with me".

Robredo is ahead of celebrity mayor Francisco Domagoso, boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao and ex-police chief Panfilo Lacson.

"The overwhelming presidential favourite remains Marcos," said Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford, giving the former senator "70 percent odds" of winning. 

READ MORE: Daughter of Philippines' Duterte to run for presidential elections in May

Ultimate comeback

Victory for Marcos Jr would be the ultimate comeback for the controversial family, which was chased into US exile after the patriarch's humiliating downfall in 1986.

The dictator oversaw widespread human rights abuses to maintain his control of the country and enable his massive plundering, with thousands of people killed or tortured, according to previous Philippine governments.

Opponents seeking to block another Marcos presidency have filed petitions with the Commission on Elections to have the son thrown out of the race over a previous conviction for failing to file income tax returns.

He has tried to defend his father's rule by citing economic growth, and minimised the human rights abuses during that regime.

Questions over his family's past and alleged ill-gotten wealth have become a source of irritation.

He has snubbed invitations to participate in interviews or forums with rivals, and told a journalist he would no longer "return to 35-year-old issues".

READ MORE: Philippine leader Duterte to retire from politics when his term ends

Source: TRTWorld and agencies