Philippine Free-For-All Begins for Presidency

The Filipino lineup for the 2016 presidential and other elections is decided. Or is it? The October 16 deadline for candidacy has passed, leaving three front-runners, one outside chance and more than 100 others who just want their name on the presidential ballot.

The front runners are, as earlier predicted: Grace Poe, 47, daughter of late actor Fernando Poe, who narrowly lost the 2004 election to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; Manuel “Mar” Roxas, 57, grandson of a former president and standard-bearer of the current Aquino administration; and Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, 72, onetime civil rights lawyer who became city boss of Makati, the richest part of Metro Manila, and beat Roxas to the vice-presidency in the 2010 election.

The outside chance is veteran candidate Senator Miriam Santiago, 70, who lost narrowly to Fidel Ramos in 1992 and also ran in 2004. She claims to have recently recovered from stage four cancer. Her chances are very slim but the more candidates there are the more unpredictable the result. In 1992 six candidates got over 10 percent.

As of now, according to opinion polls, Poe leads the field with Roxas now marginally ahead of Binay. But there are still nearly eight months to go before the May 9 polls and much could change between now and then not only in public opinion but in terms of who will be on the ballot by then.

A fourth potential front runner remains a possibility. The mayor of the southern city of Davao City, Rodrigo “Rodi” Duterte, 70, has long been the subject of a campaign to draft him as a candidate. Tycoons Lucio Tan and Manny Pangilinan reportedly sent a plane to Davao in the hope of bringing him to Manila to file his candidacy and his name appears on posters throughout Metro Manila. The fact that he did not show up for the filing and said he has no interest in the presidency may not be the end of the story.

Election rules provide for a party to replace one nominated candidate with another of the same party. Parties usually mean very little in Philippine politics but in this case could be significant. Among those who did file for the presidency was the secretary-general of the PDP-Laban, Martin Dino. Although Duterte says he will not be a substitute candidate, the possibility of his replacing Dino will remain open until Dec.10.

The hard-drinking, philandering Duterte has achieved national support, not to mention notoriety, for making his city relatively efficient and crime-free – but by apparently using ruthless extra-legal means through tolerance of vigilante groups responsible for hundreds executions of petty criminals. His candidacy would however attract widespread support in a crime-weary nation and at least draw votes away from other contenders in proportions which cannot be predicted.

Meanwhile the candidacies of both Binay and Poe face possible legal obstacles. Binay is the center of a large political clan, with one daughter a senator, another a congressman and son who was mayor of Makati (succeeding his mother) until recently disbarred from public office by the Ombudsman. Binay himself faces plunder allegations from his days as mayor. These have already lowered his standing in the polls though he remains popular among the poor on whom he has showered token benefits as he himself became very rich.

Binay’s wife also faces investigation. Given the slow progress of the justice system and its sensitivity to political winds, formal charges for Binay may be delayed till after the election. But otherwise his status as a candidate would be hard to sustain.

Poe faces legal challenges on two possible grounds. First is that as a foundling adopted by her father she is unable to prove that she is a natural born citizen of the Philippines even though all the circumstantial evidence points to her being so. Second, she lived in the US for 13 years and became a US citizen. She later renounced that but there is a question about whether this was sufficiently long ago to qualify as a candidate.

Most likely however the courts will not act to frustrate the electoral process by denying Poe or Binay their chance. The question then will be one of whether popular perceptions of the three candidates change between now and April.

Roxas is running on a ticket of continuing the progress of the Aquino administration, what he calls the “straight path” to efficient, corruption-free government. But while the standing of the government is mostly positive, Roxas himself lacks personal appeal and the common touch. He is a competent but seemingly remote old-family figure. It remains to be seen whether his actual long experience in government eventually carries more weight than the populist appeal of Binay and the sentimental appeal of Poe.

Poe has no scandals to her name, if only because she is a novice in politics, being elected to the Senate in 2013 – topping the poll – mainly on the appeal of her name and of her foundling origins. Supporters suggest she has no debts to pay and thus could run a clean government. Others suggest her lack of experience makes her vulnerable to becoming influenced by personal connections associated with her father and his friend the disgraced former president Joseph Estrada.

Indeed, Poe’s choice of Francis “Chiz” Escudero, a long-time Estrada associate as her vice-presidential running mate, does not inspire confidence that she would be able to fend off rent-seeking politicians and appoint clean professionals to key positions.

Roxas’ running mate is the inexperienced but admired Leni Robredo, widow of former Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who was killed in an air crash in 2012. Her candidacy is very recent and it has yet to be seen whether her pro-poor reputation and that of her late husband translate into votes. Even more uncertain is how far she can help Roxas given that vice presidential candidates run on their own not as part of a ticket. Roxas ran with Aquino in 2010 but lost to Binay.

The vice-presidential candidate list is otherwise a reminder of the problems the nation has in achieving stable and un-corrupt government. Binay is running with Senator Gregorio Honasan, who once led a failed coup against the Cory Aquino government and is one of the accused in a Senate pork barrel scam. Another ex-coupmaker, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, is running on his own. Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the former dictator and still in possession of an ill-gotten fortune from those years, is Santiago’s running mate.

Quite possibly some contenders will drop out before the vote. Trillanes and Senator Peter Alan Cayetano, who had been looking to be chosen as a running mate, can get some publicity while retaining their Senate seats so there will be little to lose from exiting the race before having to spend big money. Nonetheless, apart from Robredo, who has even less government experience than Poe, the VP candidates make it difficult to predict that the next Philippine administration will follow a straight and narrow path.

Expectations are now higher and institutions have improved under Aquino so the kind of sleaze which was the norm under Estrada and Arroyo may not return. Nonetheless, example from the top is needed if Philippines is to continue its long delayed journey to stability and prosperity.