CABANATUAN, PHILIPPINES -- Eduardo Joson III was on his way home last month when several armed men sped alongside his car on a lonely stretch of road and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing him and a bodyguard.

Frightened residents said the Nov. 30 ambush made Joson, the 34-year-old vice mayor of this market town north of Manila, the latest casualty in a bloody political feud here. They say he is unlikely to be the last.

Since May, a dozen people have been killed in the violent power struggle for control of Nueva Ecija Province, in the heart of the Philippines' main rice-producing region.

The feud pits the Joson family, which has controlled the province for the last 30 years, against an alliance of rivals backed by the country's biggest political party, the Philippine Democratic Struggle (LDP by its Tagalog-language initials), headed by President Corazon Aquino's brother, Jose "Peping" Cojuangco.

The violence exemplifies a deadly brand of politics -- dominated by family dynasties and political warlords -- that often makes a mockery of Philippine democracy. It is known as the politics of "guns, goons and gold," shorthand for the coercion, thuggery and corruption that frequently mar Philippine elections.

Many Filipinos had hoped such practices would fade after the overthrow of dictatorial president Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Instead, they seem to be making a comeback amid furious political jockeying that is already under way for national elections in 1992.

The power struggle here also reflects the Philippines' deep-rooted feudalism, a rallying point for Communist rebels who are carrying on a 21-year-old insurgency despite the collapse of their ideology elsewhere in the world.

Triggering the strife was the recent demise of the Joson family patriarch, Eduardo L. Joson, who ran Nueva Ecija with an iron hand as provincial governor almost continuously since 1959. He suffered a heart attack last December and died in August at age 71.

Described by residents as a combination of a mafia don and a populist politician, Joson left his political dynasty -- backed by a powerful private army -- to five sons, four of whom held elective office at the time of his death.

Joson launched a political career after serving in World War II with anti-Japanese guerrilla forces. He earned recognition as a war hero for his guerrilla leadership and his participation in a raid that freed more than 500 allied prisoners from a Japanese POW camp near Cabanatuan in January 1945.

Later, as governor, he eliminated political enemies while dispensing favors in a highly personal, sometimes capricious style. Yet he endeared himself to many constituents with acts of cradle-to-grave patronage, such as paying for the delivery of babies or offering free coffins to poor families in mourning.

Joson also made bitter enemies, notably Cabanatuan Mayor Honorato C. Perez and two allied clans. Perez, who was first elected in 1980 in a controversial recount, blames Joson for a subsequent commando-style raid on city hall. The attackers killed eight Perez supporters, wounded the mayor and 30 other people, burned down the building and escaped.

Although Marcos nominally united the rivals under his New Society Movement, they never reconciled and bolted after his ouster. Joson formed his own regional party, while Perez joined the LDP.

When Joson fell ill last year, his family pressed Vice Governor Narciso Nario to resign so that Tomas N. Joson III, the patriarch's 42-year-old son and political heir, could take over as governor in keeping with an alleged prior agreement.

Tomas Joson said he paid Nario $30,000 as part of the deal but that Nario later reneged after meeting with Perez and Aquino's secretary of local governments, Luis Santos. A longtime adversary of the late governor, Santos is a leading figure in the LDP and godfather to one of Perez's children.

In an interview, Nario said he initially tendered his resignation because of "poor health" but later withdrew it when his condition turned out to be "not as serious as I expected." He said he returned the $30,000 to the Josons.

Today, Nario holds office under military guard in the provincial governor's building, one floor above a landing with a desk marked, "Please deposit your firearms here." In a park across the street, cows graze placidly under the shade of acacia trees. But in his office, the nervous Nario has the look of a deer caught in the headlights. He says he regularly receives death threats.

On the outskirts of town, Tomas Joson carries out his duties as the new vice governor in an office next to the family ice plant, which abuts a family-owned cockfighting pit, a lucrative source of entertainment here. He also reports death threats and travels under heavy guard.

The two sides clashed openly in April when Tomas Joson, his brother Mariano Cristino Joson and a dozen bodyguards engaged in a shootout at the provincial jail with members of the Quibuyen family, a clan loyal to Perez. The Josons were charged with killing a prison guard in the incident -- a charge they deny -- but so far no judge has been willing to issue a warrant for their arrest.

The violence escalated Nov. 19 when Andres Quibuyen, the mayor's secretary and godson, was killed in an ambush along with three bodyguards. Eleven days later, vice mayor Eduardo Joson III was gunned down, apparently in revenge. To date, no one has been charged with any of the deaths.

Asked if there would be further retaliation, Tomas Joson pondered awhile and replied: "We will see. We've got to have justice."

Sporting a goatee in the style favored by his late father, he denied that the family fields a private army. "Actually, we are not warlords," he said. "We're just strong leaders. Our army is the people of Nueva Ecija."

Townspeople seem reluctant to discuss the feuding clans. "Most people just keep silent about them," said a businesswoman. "They kill each other. They can kill us also."

Human-rights activist Akhtar Chauhan said his group has not investigated killings connected with the power struggle. "We don't interfere," he said. "We are also scared of them. Both sides are dangerous."

He added: "If Jesus Christ came down and separated them, a solution could be possible. Otherwise, I don't think it's going to happen."