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Presidential race boiling down to corruption, economy

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Sen. Grace Poe waves to her supporters during her proclamation rally inside the University of the Philippines in Quezon city, metro Manila on Sept. 16.   © Reuters

MANILA -- The Philippine presidential election is still more than six months away, but the primary campaign issues are already taking shape: fighting corruption and maintaining economic growth.

     When the nation's 60 million voters go to the poll next May, they will have the difficult task of deciding which candidate can deliver on both fronts.

Leading the pack

The current front-runner is independent candidate Grace Poe. The 47-year-old senator has drummed up support by pledging to carry on incumbent President Benigno Aquino fight against corruption.

     Poe announced her candidacy on Sept. 16 at the University of the Philippines. Dressed in a simple shirt, her hair tied back in a ponytail, she addressed a crowd of supporters from a purpose-built stage. "I am Grace Poe. A Filipino. A daughter, wife and mother," she said. "I offer myself for the country's highest calling as your president."

     Her comments on corruption -- "President Aquino has done much to curb corruption," and "It is only right to continue the fight against corruption," -- drew round after round applause.

     "Who would've thought a foundling would ever become senator?" she continued, referring to her background.

     As a baby, Poe was abandoned at a church in the province of Iloilo and was adopted by Fernando Poe, a popular Philippine actor. The "king of movies," as he was nicknamed, was also politically minded and ran in the 2004 presidential election.

     Grace Poe graduated from Boston College and continued to live in the U.S. for some time before returning to the Philippines when her father died. She was elected senator in 2013.

     Poe has three children with her husband, an information technology consultant. Her image as a friend of the common people has helped fuel her popularity, and multiple opinion polls put her in the lead for the presidency.

Awkward situation

Poe's promise to continue Aquino's anti-corruption crusade has garnered her praise both at home and abroad.

     In July, however, Aquino said he will support the candidacy of Manuel Roxas, former secretary of the interior and local government.

     Roxas, the grandson of a former Philippine president, previously worked as an investment banker in New York. He was a leading candidate in the 2010 presidential election but gave up his bid when Aquino decided to enter the race after the death of his mother, Corazon Aquino, the 11th president of the Philippines. The incumbent president is reportedly supporting Roxas because he feels indebted to him.

     The candidate's elitist image, however, has made it difficult for him to garner broad public support.

     The Aquino administration had apparently wanted to take advantage of Poe's grass-roots popularity by having her run as vice president to Roxas's president.

     That plan went awry when Poe decided to run as an independent. Her pledge to carry on Aquino's growth and anti-corruption policies -- despite not having his official backing -- only complicates matters for the administration.

Big issues

In declaring her candidacy, Poe pledged to create jobs by promoting manufacturing and tourism, and to double the annual infrastructure budget to 7% of gross domestic product in order to finance much needed improvements.

     Personal consumption, which accounts for 70% of GDP, remains brisk, supported by homebound remittances of more than $24 billion a year from Filipinos working overseas.

     Poe said she would make the average 6% growth achieved by the Aquino administration sustainable so as to improve the living standard of the poor, who form the largest portion of the Philippine population.

     At one point, Vice President Jejomar Binay was the strongest contender in the presidential race. Before taking up his current post, he served as head of the City of Makati. As vice president, he traveled across the country to build up his support base.

     But Binay has been losing popular support since the revelation last year of his involvement in a corruption scandal.

     "Not being involved in corruption is more important than ability in this country," said Kiyoshi Wakamiya, a Japanese journalist who was at the scene when Senator Benigno Aquino, the incumbent president's father, was assassinated at Manila International Airport in 1983.

     Many businesspeople from Japan say the current president's greatest achievement is his "incorruptibility."

     The Philippines has a population of 100 million, the second largest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. The average age is just 23, and the country has a high level of English fluency. These features make the Philippines an attractive investment destination on paper, but its reputation for rampant corruption and violence have kept many foreign businesses away.

     Aquino has successfully burnished his country's image. It will be up to his successor to make sure this progress is not lost.

     While Poe has garnered widespread support with her pledge to continue Aquino's corruption fight, some observers say they are concerned about her limited political experience.

     Given the crowded field, the Aquino administration will need to play catch-up in its support of Roxas.

     "You don't know what will happen in the Philippines," a local journalist said.

     But while corruption may well be the foremost issue for most voters, next May's election will also go a long way to determining whether the Philippines can attract foreign capital and keep its economy humming.

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