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The Philippines' top presidential candidates

Gabriel Domínguez
February 9, 2016

As presidential candidates in the Philippines kick off their electoral campaigns, DW takes a look at the top contenders, and the issues likely to decide who will lead the Southeast Asian nation over the coming six years.

Philippinen Präsidentschaftswahlen Transparente für Grace Poe
Image: Reuters/R. Ranoco

Presidential candidates in the Philippines officially hit the campaign trail on Tuesday, February 9, rallying their supporters in different parts of the country. Over the next 90 days, some of them will prioritize giving speeches in schools and universities, while others say they will use all forms of mass and social media to reach more voters.

But the May 9 general election will not only decide who will become the archipelago's next president and vice president; on that day, some 55 million eligible voters across the Southeast Asian nation are also expected to elect their representatives for executive and legislative branches in all levels of government, including 12 senators, one district representative, one party list representative, and provincial, city and municipal officials.

The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) plans to hold three presidential debates in the coming months - in Mindanao on February 21, in the Visayas on March 20, and in Luzon on April 24. A vice-presidential debate is also set to be held in Manila on April 10.

But who are the main contenders? There are five top candidates competing to succeed President Benigno Aquino III, who has been in power since 2010, and is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. They are Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, Jejomar "Jojo" Binay, Grace Poe, Rodrigo Duterte, and Miriam Defensor Santiago.

Manuel 'Mar' Roxas

President Aquino's preferred candidate is the leader of the ruling Liberal Party (LP), Manuel "Mar" Roxas. The son of a senator and the grandson of a president, Roxas was a senator and a congressman before serving in Aquino's cabinet. He is also seen as one of the few candidates with deep knowledge of economics - being popularly known as "Mr. Palengke" (Mr. Market), and credited with economic successes such as bringing the call-center industry to the Philippines.

In 2010, Roxas lost the vice-presidential race to current VP Jejomar Binay (in the Philippines the two offices are separately elected). Nonetheless, he served in different cabinet positions over the past years. "Roxas stands for the continuity of the incumbent government's policies. As Aquino's close ally he promises to continue the anti-corruption or 'straight path' policy, as it is known in the Philippines, that is appealing to elites," Mark R Thompson, Philippines expert at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), told DW.

Filipino Liberal Party presidential candidate Manuel 'Mar' Roxas III speaks during a dialogue with residents in Pasay City, south of Manila, Philippines 19 January 2016 (Photo: EPA/MARK R. CRISTINO)
Manuel "Mar" Roxas is President Aquino's preferred candidateImage: picture-alliance/epa/M. R. Cristino

But Roxas has struggled to raise his standing in the opinion polls, a development some analysts attribute to his own lack of charisma."He is more known for his thoroughness than for being an exciting public figure," Jules Maaten, head of the Philippines office of the German foundation Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, told DW.

Jejomar 'Jojo' Binay

Vice President Binay served in the Aquino cabinet until he resigned last June, and is seen by some analysts as the opposite of Roxas. He has come under sustained criticism for alleged corruption during his term as Mayor of Makati City - the country's financial hub. Yet despite the vast sums of money that he inexplicably gained while in public service, he presents himself as a man of the people - a populist, who cares for the poor, using his long track record of strong social services he delivered as long serving mayor.

He founded his own political party, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), and seems to be benefiting from a nationwide network of ties built up over decades, according to experts.

"His politics are simple: Whoever you are, he is on your side," says analyst Maaten, stressing that Binay shouldn't be written off as a strong candidate despite the corruption allegations that have been made against him.

Standing at the top of city hall, Manila's Makati City mayor Jejomar 'Jojo' Binay gestures, 14 June 2005, as he shows off the skyscrapers of the Philippines' top corporations located within his jurisdiction (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/J. Directo)
Vice President Binay served in the Aquino cabinet until he resigned last JuneImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Directo

As for his political views, Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's country representative in the Philippines, says he believes Binay presents the clearest challenge to the Aquino administration's legacy. For instance, says Rood, Binay has been most critical of the Bangsamoro Basic Law - a bill designed to establish a more powerful autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the Catholic-majority nation, but which has yet to be passed by parliament.

Binay says he wants once again to consult all stakeholders in Mindanao before agreeing to a deal. Binay's policies also seem to differ from those of Roxas on the ongoing territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over parts of the South China Sea. According to Rood, Binay would prefer to negotiate with China bilaterally on the issue, which is what Beijing prefers.

Grace Poe

Another popular contender is Senator Grace Poe, who is running as an independent. She had been wooed by Aquino and Roxas to become the latter's running mate, but after some dithering chose to go it alone. Poe is the newcomer, having entered politics only three years ago when she topped the race for the nationally-elected Senate.

However, the Philippines' Supreme Court is currently discussing whether she is qualified to run, as it is not clear whether she is a natural born Filipina - which is a constitutional provision. Poe is a foundling who was adopted by the late actor and politician Fernando Poe Jr. and his wife, the actress Susan Roces.

She once renounced her Filipino citizenship to take up American citizenship in the US - which she in turn renounced when she returned to the Philippines. There is also a debate about whether she lacks the minimum 10-year Philippine residency required under the Constitution to run as a presidential candidate.

Philippine Senator Grace Poe (L), daughter of the late popular movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., shakes hands with supporters after filing her Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) for president at the Commission on Elections in Manila on October 15, 2015 (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/T. Aljibe)
Poe is running as an independent candidateImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Aljibe

If she is allowed to run, says analyst Rood, Poe has considerable support from the elite (big business and intellectuals) who see her as an alternative to Duterte and Binay. In fact, a Laylo survey published on February 9 shows the 47-year-old maintaining her lead over other presidential bets.

"She has a mixed message," says Professor Thompson, who is also director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) at CityU."On the one hand, she is sending out the message that she cares for the poor. On the other, she has cultivated the image of a hardworking, conscientious and not corrupt politician during her time as senator, which is liked by the elite."

Rodrigo Duterte

Long-serving Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte spent months publicly debating whether he would run - generating considerable free news coverage that culminated in his announcement to do so. Duterte, who is a member of the PDP-Laban party, is seen by analysts as a wild card, running mostly on a tough law-and-order platform.

As analyst Rood explains, Davao City, located in the southern island of Mindanao, was a dangerous economic backwater during the 1980s. But after decades under a Duterte-led administration - at one point he was subject to term limits and so his daughter was mayor - the city is now economically booming and crime is down considerably.

His critics allege that Duterte has achieved this at the cost of extensive human rights violations, which Duterte flatly denies. He encourages the image of a tough-talking man who would not hesitate to punish criminals. "He promotes himself as a tough crime fighter, having introduced an evening curfew for adolescents in Davao, and publicly supporting the shooting of suspected criminals by armed vigilantes. He suggests that if Congress would not support his plans to clean up the country, he might simply abolish it with support of army and police," said Maaten.

Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte (C) shakes hands with supporters outside a hotel in Manila on November 30, 2015 (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/N. Celis)
Duterte's major policy platform is to turn the Philippines into a federal stateImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Celis

His major policy platform is to turn the Philippines into a federal state to counter the ill effects of centuries of over-centralized administration.

Miriam Defensor Santiago

Senator Miriam Santiago of the People's Reform Party almost won the presidency in 1992. The 70-year old has served in all three branches of the Philippine government - judicial, executive, and legislative - and was once named one of the 100 most powerful women in the world by The Australian magazine. Experts say Santiago, who is running for the third time, is a legitimate candidate running on her reputation as a brilliant and fearless mind, but is currently languishing in surveys in the single digits area. She was very ill with cancer; but insists she has fully recovered.

Too early to call

The latest opinion poll conducted by Laylo Research Strategies between January 27 and February 4 shows that Poe has retained the lead with 29 percent. Mar Roxas has gradually increased his standing from next-to-the-bottom to statistical ties with other candidates. In fact, Binay and Roxas are tied for second place with 22 percent. The survey also shows Duterte in third place with 20 percent, while Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is in fourth with just two percent.

Poe, Binay, and Duterte have all had the lead sometime in the past six months in opinion polls. So analysts say it is much too early to make predictions - particularly since the official campaign just started. But regardless of who wins, experts say it is very likely that there will be accusations of fraud in a country where previous elections have been marred by this.

Filipino Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, running for president, smiles during a kick-off campaign at the Imelda Cultural Center, Batac City, Ilocos Norte province, northern Philippines, 09 February 2016 (Photo: picture-alliance/epa/M. R. Cristino)
Miriam Santiago of the People's Reform Party almost won the presidency in 1992Image: picture-alliance/epa/M. R. Cristino

Reformism vs populism

Analysts say the key factor in the upcoming presidential poll will be whether Filipinos will opt for a continuation of the current policies by voting for candidates linked to President Aquino or not. "The Aquino administration was a polarizing one, as it also faced strong critics. In this sense, the upcoming election will test the extent to which Filipinos can trust Aquino's anointed candidate - Mar Roxas - and his political allies," Aries Arugay, associate professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, told DW.

Professor Thompson agrees. As he puts it, the campaign boils down to "reformism" or anti-corruption trumpeted by Roxas - and to a certain extent by Poe - against Binay's pro-poor populism. "Duterte is the wild card talking about 'peace and order' as his major issue."

Some of the other important issues in this election will be public infrastructure, pervasive economic inequality, as well as crime and insecurity, says Arugay, who argues the Aquino administration has not done enough to tackle them. "Filipinos see the government's anti-corruption efforts as insufficient. Traffic in urban areas, illegal drugs and crime remain major concerns, and economic growth has not translated into more jobs at home, with only the top five percent of the population benefiting from it," he explained.

Topics which have made international headlines for months such as the Philippines' territorial dispute with China or Manila's fight against rebels in the south will not play a major role in this election, say experts. For instance, the Tribunal in The Hague, expected to rule on whether most of Beijing's South China Sea claims are valid, is unlikely to issue a decision before the election, meaning the dispute won't generate much attention.

A personality-driven campaign

But perhaps the most important reason for this, says analyst Rood, is that politics in the Philippines is generally about personalities, rather than parties and platforms.

"Voters want to elect somebody of whom they approve as a person and who is 'approachable.' This is not entirely irrational, for after all they are putting somebody into a position of power who will have to make a myriad of decisions in response to future events and opportunities, and thus quality of the candidates themselves is crucial."

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