Gun-Toting Davao Mayor Jumps Into Philippine Elections

The decision by Rodrigo Duterte, the gun-toting mayor of Davao City, to enter the Philippine presidential sweepstakes at virtually the last minute complicates the always circus-like politics that have characterized the country for decades.

The national elections, set for July 1, 2016, are of more than average importance to the Philippines because the country has had a relatively successful six years under President Benigno S. Aquino III, with a substantial cleanup in corruption although a lot remains to be done. The country has risen from a score of 105th of 175 countries in 2012 to 85th in the 2014 poll by Transparency International. After the 12 years between former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, there is hope that the reform movement can continue with the new president next year.

With four candidates already in the race, it is uncertain whose votes would be cannibalized by the 70-year-0ld Duterte, who won his spurs by serving as Davao City for 22 years, with two periods out to serve in the national congress, by reportedly reducing crime from triple digits per 1,000 people to 0.8 per 10,000 from 1999 to 2005, allegedly, according to his critics, by sanctioning death squads to eliminate petty thugs, something he has rather unconvincingly denied. In a country where street crime is endemic, his appeal may grow, with the number of crimes including theft, car theft, assault and rape, up by 46 percent year-on-year for the first six months of 2015 according to the Philippine National Police Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management.

Duterte is more complicated than his cowboy image makes him appear. He has given formal representation to the indigenous Lumad and Muslim communities, mandated an anti-discrimination ordinance, used city funds to build a US$250,000 drug rehab center and has offered a monthly allowance to addicts committed to kicking the habit. Duterte has also sought to negotiate with the Communist New People’s Army and has advocated diplomacy over armed action.

How much chance Duterte has is unsure given his late entry into the race, more than a month after the official deadline after waffling for months. Election rules provide for a party to replace one nominated candidate with another of the same party. Among those who did file for the presidency was the secretary-general of the PDP-Laban, Martin Dino. Although Duterte says he won’t be a substitute candidate, the betting is that he will replace Dino before the closing on Dec. 10.

Sen. Grace Poe, despite questions about her citizenship, continues to lead the race by a wide margin, according to the Pulse Asia poll released last week. Poe, regarded as a reformer, has the approval of 39 percent of respondents, with Vice President Jejomar Binay, who had led the polls for months, having fallen to 24 percent over unexplained millions of dollars that ended up in his pockets and a huge hacienda that he claims he doesn’t own in Batangas. Manuel A. Roxas, Aquino’s choice to succeed him, is mired well back at 21 percent after leading Binay slightly in a previous poll. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who acknowledges she is suffering from breast cancer, finishes the field with 11 percent.

Poe’s lead has continued to widen, up from 30 percent in a survey at the beginning of June. The poll, the first since the Oct. 16 deadline to file, was conducted among 3,400 respondents nationwide and according to Pulse Asia, it has a margin error of plus or minus 1.7 percent.

There are troubling questions about Poe’s connections to the political machine of Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, the former president who was ousted by a popular revolt backed by the military in 2001, supposedly due to massive corruption. The common wisdom is that Estrada and Poe have made common cause because Estrada was close to Poe’s adoptive father, Ferdinand Poe Jr. who like Estrada was an actor. Poe ran against then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and lost amid charges of vote-buying by the president, then died shortly afterwards.

However, Poe’s running mate, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, another chum of Estrada’s, is regarded as considerably less than a reformer. Poe is a relative newcomer to politics, having been elected to the Senate in 2013. She has spent a considerable amount of her life in the United States, graduating from Boston College and working there until she returned to the Philippines on the death of her father in 2004.

Despite his less than savory reputation, Escudero leads the vice presidential sweepstakes by 43 percent, followed by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, in second with 21 percent.

Poe’s citizenship has spurred considerable controversy. A foundling, she was found on the steps of a cathedral. She was adopted into the Poe family and her parentage has never been established. Opponents have sought to capitalize on that and the fact that she spent so many years outside the United States, where she took citizenship. However, on Nov. 17, the nine-member Senate Electoral Tribunal composed of six senators and three Supreme Court justices voted 5-4 voted in her favor in a case that could have potentially disqualified her from the 2016 elections.

The case, filed by her opponent in the Senate election, charged that since she was a foundling, she is not a “natural born” Filipino and therefore not eligible to run for president under the Constitution.

Her opponent has vowed to appeal. But whether or not the appeal is successful, there are additional challenges to her candidacy based the status of her citizenship and residency. Four additional cases have been filed against Poe with the Commission on Elections .

Certainly Poe’s eligibility issues are not likely to go away anytime soon, with a whole range of political opponents and opportunists looking to file in the always unpredictable Philippine court system, where victory can turn into defeat without anybody quite knowing why. The issue of her candidacy is all but certain to end up in the Supreme Court. A strong showing in continuing public opinion polls is likely to be a determining factor.