Philippine Court Clears Poe to Run for President

The Philippine Supreme Court, on a 9-6 vote, has ruled that Grace Poe is eligible to run for president in May national elections despite questions over her long residency in the United States, which critics said disqualified her.

In doing so, the court seemingly has obeyed the polls as much as the Constitution, overruling the country’s election commission, which had barred her from running. The decision is sure to shake up the presidential race, with Poe’s approval ratings sagging previously because of questions over whether the court would allow her to run.

Critics of the decision have threatened to file motions for reconsideration. Nonetheless, her approval, if it goes forward, also clears up an embarrassing problem for the election commission, since her name had already been printed on the ballots.

The election comes at a critical time for the Philippines after six years of strong economic progress and relatively corruption-free administration by Benigno S. Aquino III – relatively because corruption still dogs almost all interaction with government in the Philippines. Despite the progress Aquino has made, the country is still ranked 95th of 135 countries on the Transparency International corruption perceptions index. Nonetheless, Aquino has been given credit for cleaning up the government bid process. In particular, he has been praised for his picks to the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman and the Justice Ministry.

Given the slate of candidates, there are big questions whether his successor will continue to push for reform in a country that has lately become the darling of international investors, with a 6 percent-plus economy that has outperformed much of the region. The polls have been extremely volatile, with the lead changing almost every month between Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

A foundling, the 47-year-old Poe was left on the doors of a church and was adopted by the late actor Ferdinand A. Poe Jr., who ran for president against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004. A graduate of Boston College, she took a job in the US, living there for 12 years with her Filipino-American husband and children, and only returning in 2005 after Poe died. While she fulfilled the 10 year residency to run, she did not renounce her US citizenship and reregister as a Philippine citizen until 2010.

Poe, according to a March 4 poll of 1,800 registered voters by Pulse Asia, is running virtually neck and neck with Binay. Poe was the favorite of 26 percent of voters, compared with 25 percent for Binay, with Duterte and President Benigno S. Aquino’s chosen candidate, Manuel A. “Mar” Roxas running behind and tied at 21 percent. The ruling is expected to catapult Poe back into the lead, at least temporarily. Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, suffering from cancer, was selected by just 3 percent.

Despite her three years in the Senate, Poe is regarded as relatively untested, giving rise to concerns that, like the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, she may not end up as an effective leader. In 2013, she ran as an independent affiliated with the Aquino coalition. In the Senate, she has pushed for free school meals and other programs to protect children from malnutrition. Her most notable action was to chair hearings into a 2015 clash between Army special forces and Muslim rebels in Mindanao, which resulted in the deaths of 44 soldiers. She won approval for the professional way she handled the hearings. She has also pushed for a Freedom of Information bill to promote greater governmental transparency.

She has run a pro-poor campaign, a potent message in a country where endemic poverty is an overriding concern. She has promised build on Aquino's job creation and infrastructure programs. She is regarded as a reformer although concerns have risen over her pick as vice president, Roberto “Chiz” Escudero. Escudero is considered a part of the political machine of Joseph Estrada, who was driven from the presidency on charges of vast corruption.

She faces formidable candidates in Duterte, whose entire campaign is built on taking criminals off the street in a crime-ridden country, and in Binay, who has been running for the presidency since he was elected vice president along with Aquino as president in 2010. Binay has been preparing for the presidency longer than any of the other candidates. His signature calling card in more than two decades as Makati mayor was to send a birthday cake to every citizen in his constituency on reaching the age of 70.

Binay led the polls in January before being overwhelmed by charges of vast corruption from his days as mayor of Makati, the upscale business district in the middle of the huge Manila conurbation. He has amassed a comfortable hoard of campaign funds, is blanketing television advertising, has a country-wide network of backers through the “sister city” program he established as mayor, donating vehicles, second-hand books, school chairs and tables and other equipment to 670 smaller cities across the country. He is head of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines.

Nonetheless, Binay, once a crusading human rights lawyer, is now dogged by credible charges of deep corruption. He refused to face a blue ribbon Senate panel investigating him, calling it a witch hunt, which to some extent it probably was despite the evidence of corruption, because the country’s aristocracy really doesn’t want to see him as president. The fear is that he will set out to loot the country as Marcos, Estrada and Arroyo did. Nonetheless, he is strongly backed by the Filipino business community.

Rodrigo Duterte, the 70-year-old gun-toting mayor of Davao City, who fell to 15 percent after a strong start built on his threat to exterminate all criminals without trial, faces problems because he doesn’t have a nationwide organization to match Binay’s. Mar Roxas, Aquino’s anointed successor, is a wooden speaker and, in the eyes of some, a wooden thinker.