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Politics

Philippine presidential candidates seek edge in intensifying race

Philippines' leading presidential candidates Grace Poe, right, Rodrigo Duterte, upper left, and Mar Roxas (Photos by Simon Roughneen)
Philippines' presidential candidates Grace Poe, right, Rodrigo Duterte, upper left, and Mar Roxas (Photos by Simon Roughneen)

BACOOR, Philippines -- In a packed basketball arena in the province of Cavite, a half-hour's drive south of the congested capital, Manila, Senator Grace Poe made her pitch to lead the Philippines as the country's next president.

     "There is a long history of Cavitenos watching movies of my father and they remember that," she said, referring to her famous adoptive father, the late film actor Fernado Poe, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004.

     Rather than featuring established, ideologically-driven political parties with slick campaign machines, Philippine elections are dominated by political dynasties, with a list of household names decorated with a smattering of celebrities, be they TV stars or sports icons such as world champion boxer Manny Pacquaio, who is running for a senate seat. Poe, with her cinema star father, has the background to match, and is not afraid to play it up in the quest for an edge in this close-run race.

     Nearly two months ahead of the May 9 election, Poe and three other contenders vying to succeed President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III are evenly matched, judging by public opinion polls which have shown Poe closely tracking Davao Mayor Rodrigo "Rody" Duterte, Vice-President Jejomar Binay and former Interior Secretary Manuel "Mar" Roxas, who has the backing of the incumbent president.

Wide open race

Grace Poe waves to supporters after a campaign event in Bacoor, Cavite, on March 17 Grace Poe waves to supporters after a campaign event in Bacoor, Cavite, on March 17 (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

In the Philippines, presidents are limited to a single, six-year term -- a system meant to prevent the re-emergence of dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted after decades of increasingly oppressive rule by mass street protests in Manila in 1986.

     In an economy that has grown by around 6.6% per year since 2012 -- when the country changed course after years of stagnation that earned it the nickname "the sick man of Asia" -- candidates are focusing on how best to sustain the gains made during Aquino's tenure.

     "We need to generate more jobs, so my priority would be creating conditions conducive to investment," Poe, 47, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

     "That will create jobs and technology transfer," she added, explaining that she wants the country's constitution amended in order to allow greater foreign investment in sectors that are currently off-limits, such as media, private security, land ownership and co-operatives. The constitution also stipulates a 40% foreign ownership limit on public utilities and bars foreigners from working in sectors such as law, criminology and pharmacy

     In another proposal that is likely to sway public opinion, Poe wants to make university education free for poorer Filipinos. It remains to be seen whether such electoral pitches could help to counteract jibes from rival candidates that as "an American," she would, in the event of victory, beat Hillary Clinton to become the first female American president.

     Poe spent much of her life in the U.S., prompting questions over her eligibility to run for president. But a March 8 Supreme Court ruling judged her free to run in the May 9 elections, when 55 million Filipinos will also elect a vice-president, as well as senators and lower house representatives.

     Officially, unemployment in the Philippines hovers between 6.5% and 7% of the population of about 100 million, although most economists say the real number is much higher. Despite recent economic growth, rural poverty and urban slums are a common sight across the sprawling archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. The Philippines is the second most populous country in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, but the country's $300 billion economy is only slightly bigger than Singapore's, where the population is under 6 million.

Rodrigo Duterte onstage prior to giving a campaign speech in Angeles City on March 19 Rodrigo Duterte onstage prior to giving a campaign speech in Angeles City on March 19 (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

     "In the Philippines the problem is poverty," said Rodrigo Duterte, another leading presidential candidate, speaking to the NAR in the heart of Angeles City, a town two hours' drive north of Manila and best known for its bawdy nightlife.

     As mayor of Davao, the main southern city, 70-year-old Duterte's popularity is based partly on a boisterous persona -- he has spoken openly on topics such as his extra-marital affairs with younger women and his use of the virility drug Viagra -- as well as on his shoot-to-kill approach to criminals in the city.

     Despite criticism from human rights groups over extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals, Duterte is taking his "zero tolerance" approach to crime onto the national stage, in the hopes that it will appeal to millions of Filipinos just as it did to constituents of Davao.

     "Of course, of course," Duterte said, when asked if as president he would crack down hard on crime, a much publicized scourge in the Philippines. He spoke before taking the stage at a recent rally in Angeles City, where he greeted an exuberant crowd of around 10,000 people, who repeatedly broke into chants of "Duterte! Duterte!"

     Two hours into his speech, Duterte was reminded by an aide that "it is already 9.30pm." Shrugging off the approach, the sprightly, septuagenarian mayor retorted, "that's no problem, I can go till 2am."

Down to business

Contrasting with Duterte's brash showmanship and crowd-pleasing bravado, Mar Roxas is casting himself as a business-friendly and affable technocrat, whose promises of continuity with the Aquino government extend to replaying some of the same sloganeering that Aquino used in his victorious 2010 election run.

     "We are no longer the sick man of Asia," Roxas said, speaking at the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Manila. Roxas was on home turf, telling the gathering that his government would allow businesses "to focus on their activity," and accusing rival candidates of populism.

     "I will not be looking at the popular thing," he said, comparing candidates touting giveaways to voters with parents trying to placate children by offering them ice-cream.

     "We believe that by providing a stable foundation, you, the businessmen, can be energized, can be inspired to open more businesses, and that is what creates jobs," Roxas told the crowd.

Mar Roxas speaking to a group of Filipino-Chinese business owners at the Century Park Hotel, Manila, on March 18 Mar Roxas speaking to a group of Filipino-Chinese business owners at the Century Park Hotel, Manila, on March 18 (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

     Roxas said he would maintain Aquino's anti-corruption drive -- a policy which Angel Ngu, president of the Filipino-Chinese chamber, said had boosted the appeal of the Philippines to risk-averse foreign investors and had made the Aquino administration the first to work effectively against corruption -- a key election issue, particularly for Jejomar Binay.

     While he has benefited from his close relationship with Aquino, Binay is facing a string of corruption charges over projects he supervised during his time as mayor of Makati City, the affluent business and financial hub of Manila. Keeping a lower profile than the other three main contenders, Binay prefers to sit with voters in suburbs and villages, taking lunch and chatting, rather than holding large campaign rallies. In the second televised candidate debate held in Cebu on March 20, Binay was criticized for delaying the event by demanding he be allowed to use notes, contravening the debate rules, and in turn was attacked by the other contenders over the graft allegations.

     "The accusations [of corruption] have already hampered his campaign," said Ronald Mendoza, executive director of Asian Institute of Management Policy Center. "He has been going to the grassroots."

     A fifth candidate, Senator Miriam Santiago, is lagging far behind the other four in opinion polls, and is not seen as a likely contender come voting day. But with the four other candidates alternating at the top of opinion surveys, the contest remains "a wide open race," according to Mendoza.

     Ahead of the 2010 elections, Aquino was long regarded as the likely winner, a marked contrast to the uncertain nature of the current presidential race. With nearly two months to go until voting day, there is much flesh-pressing to be done across the archipelago, ample time and opportunity for candidates to stake out their policies and, perhaps, for a likely winner to surface.

     "Nobody can be complacent in this race, everybody needs to work double time," affirmed Grace Poe.

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