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Philippine presidential campaign packs plenty of drama

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LEFT: Jejomar Binay RIGHT: Manuel Roxas CENTER: Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe, Manny Pacquiao   © Reuters

MANILA   The Philippines' next presidential election is still five months away, but the campaign has already taken some stunning turns. Odds are, more twists are in store.

     President Benigno Aquino has been widely lauded for tackling corruption, rebuilding state finances and overseeing the fastest economic growth in Southeast Asia. Under the constitution, however, the president cannot seek a second six-year term. The vote for Aquino's successor on May 9 could have far-reaching implications, not only for the domestic economy but also regional security.

     When the candidate registration deadline passed in October, it appeared to be a three-way race. Opinion polls pegged Grace Poe, a senator, as the favorite. Her main competitors: Manuel Roxas, a former secretary of the interior and local government, and Jejomar Binay, the sitting vice president.  

     Poe, an independent lawmaker and adopted daughter of a movie star, pledged to carry on the Aquino policies that have stoked growth. She also gained support by speaking out against corruption, though some critics have faulted her short political career.

     Then came a December surprise: The election commission disqualified Poe on the grounds that she had not lived in the Philippines long enough. She went to college in the U.S. and, after graduating, resided there for years. She moved back to the Philippines in 2005.

     If that decision stands, the election is likely to be a face-off between Roxas and Binay. 

     Roxas is a grandson of a former president and has Aquino's backing. After years of political turmoil and economic stagnation, the Aquino government managed to get the country on a growth track and is determined to see its policies preserved. Roxas, however, has yet to capture the public's imagination.   

     Binay, meanwhile, is considered the anti-Aquino candidate, despite having served in government alongside him. In the Philippines, presidents and vice presidents are elected separately. 

     The vice president has been crisscrossing the country to drum up support. Though corruption allegations have tarnished his image, Binay remains popular on the southern island of Mindanao, which has a population of 20 million, and other rural areas. It does not hurt that he is close to superstar boxer and House of Representatives member Manny Pacquiao -- considered a national hero.

     Some argue that regardless of who becomes president, the economy will keep chugging at a decent pace. After all, the growth has been driven largely by the private sector. Remittances from overseas Filipino workers total around $25 billion a year, and the business process outsourcing industry is booming.

     Still, Aquino's accomplishments should not be underestimated. His anti-corruption campaign and other policies helped to build investor confidence. If his successor veers too far in a different direction, it could dampen the economy's momentum. 

     Philippine diplomacy could also look very different, depending on the election outcome.

     Aquino is close to the U.S. and Japan, and has stood alongside them against China's efforts to control the South China Sea. Binay, on the other hand, is said to be close to Beijing.

     Of course, the campaign is far from over, and Poe cannot be counted out. The Supreme Court granted her a reprieve, preventing the elections commission from enforcing her disqualification. The court is expected to issue a final ruling on the matter in March, at the earliest. That timing could work in Poe's favor: If she wins her appeal shortly before the vote, it could propel her into the presidential palace. 

     A dark horse could also emerge. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao on Mindanao Island, has filed to run after the candidate for his party, known as the PDP-Laban, withdrew. He is popular on the island, where he is seen as a strong leader who has improved security. Yet local media reports allege that he has his own "death squads" that carry out extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals. This has drawn condemnation from human rights groups.

     The presidential race will be decided by about 60 million voters, aged 18 and up. It is likely to be a popularity contest as much as an assessment of party platforms and candidate capabilities.

     At the same time, the vice presidential and congressional polls could offer hints at the nation's political future. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a senator and the eldest son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is running for vice president and may have his eye on the top job. Pacquiao is running for the Senate, and some believe that he, too, harbors presidential aspirations.

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