As the campaigning kicks off, Mong Palatino casts his eyes over the major players in the race for the nation’s top job.
On 9 May, an estimated 54 million Filipinos will vote for a new president. Campaigning starts today, with the new president taking office on 30 June. There are five major contenders in the race — Mar Roxas, Jojo Binay, Grace Poe, Miriam Santiago, and Rodrigo Duterte.
With the eventual winner serving for six years, it’s time you got to know them.
Mar Roxas: The Administration Candidate
Mar Roxas, leader of the Liberal Party, is the administration’s preferred candidate. His grandfather was elected president after World War II, his father was a senator in the 1960s, and his brother was a congressman in the 1980s. He belongs to the wealthy Araneta clan and is married to a famous TV personality.
Roxas topped the Senate elections in 2004, and was the original presidential candidate of the Liberal Party, but gave way to now-president Benigno Simeon Aquino in 2009, after the death of his mother, President Cory Aquino prompted a surge in support. Roxas ran for vice president alongside Aquino, but lost. Despite this, Roxas served under the Aquino government as secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications and Department of the Interior and Local Government.
Roxas boasts a clean record and vows to continue the legacy of the Aquino government under the banner of Daang Matuwid (The Straight Path). However, his rivals often bring up his elite background to accuse him of lacking rapport with the poor. He is also ridiculed for underperforming as a Cabinet secretary, bearing the brunt of the people’s frustrations over the worsening traffic situation in Metro Manila, inadequate delivery of social services, and rising cost of living.
Jojo Binay: The Incumbent Vice President
Jojo Binay defeated Roxas by a small margin in 2010. Before becoming vice president, he was mayor of Makati City, the country’s premier financial hub, for more than a decade. Before entering government service in 1986, he was a prominent human rights lawyer who defied the Martial Law regime (the period from 1972 to 1981 when Ferdinand Marcos ruled by decree).
Binay’s activism of yesteryear is overshadowed today by his notorious reputation as a traditional politician. He has been charged with several corruption and plunder cases, although he insists these are all politically-motivated.
As mayor of Makati, Binay offered generous social welfare programs. If elected president, he promises to expand these services for the benefit of the country’s poor, which probably explains his lead in polls. However, Binay’s candidacy continues to be undermined by ongoing accusations that his family has been abusing their political position to amass ill-gotten properties.
Grace Poe: The Neophyte Senator
When Binay’s trust rating spiralled in the face of corruption cases last year, Grace Poe became the leading presidential candidate. Poe topped the Senate elections in 2013, which is attributable to the popularity of her celebrity parents. Her father Fernando Poe Jr, known as the ‘King of Philippine movies’, unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004. Many believe that the Grace Poe’s electoral victory vindicated the name of her father.
Despite being a novice senator, she was quickly recognised as a viable alternative presidential candidate. Poe was even asked by the ruling party to run as vice president with Roxas, and the Left, which rarely endorses candidates, has openly supported her bid for the top job.
After Poe declined the invitation from Roxas, her legal woes began. Several disqualification cases questioning her citizenship were successively filed. The petitioners argue that as a foundling, Poe is unable to establish that she is a natural-born Filipino. Poe’s previous American citizenship, which she only gave up after the death of her father in 2005, was also raised in the court.
These cases are still pending, and have affected and distracted Poe’s campaign. Most probably, Poe will remain in the running, but the citizenship issue will hound her throughout the campaign period.
Miriam Santiago: The Intellectual Politician
Poe has many young supporters, but Senator Miriam Santiago is more popular among students and intellectuals. A seasoned politician, Santiago almost became president in 1992 when she placed second in the presidential election. She won as senator in 1995, 2004, and 2010.
Santiago has cultivated an image of an intelligent, tough-talking civil servant who won’t tolerate corruption and incompetence in the bureaucracy. Yet, her detractors would probably cite the inconsistency in her political record, since she once supported the corruption-tainted governments of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo.
Santiago’s real problem is convincing the public that she is fit to lead, since she is recovering from fifth-stage cancer. In addition, her political party is almost non-existent. Unlike other presidential candidates, she has refused to place TV ads, which are expensive but essential in boosting a campaign. This is Santiago’s way of exposing the unjustness of money politics – a remarkable political act, but will it cost her victory?
Rodrigo Duterte: ‘Dirty Harry’ or Social Reformer?
If Santiago likes to flaunt her intellectual prowess, then Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed “Dirty Harry” by analysts, prefers a reputation as a crime buster who is ready to kill drug lords and kidnappers. As mayor of Davao City for almost two decades, Duterte transformed the city into one of the country’s safest places to live and invest.
Aside from promoting peace and order, his supporters claim Duterte is also responsive to the needs of the poor. But his methods are unconventional, and some human rights groups describe his brand of justice as selective, illegal, and anti-poor. Despite this (or maybe because of this), his fame spread through the nation with many urging him clamour to run against traditional politicians.
The Duterte phenomenon is an indicator of the people’s dissatisfaction with the current political system, dominated by big landlords and rich families.
But Duterte is more than just an anti-crime advocate. Unknown to many, he has close ties with the Left, which he developed while initiating social programs for poor farmers and workers. Because of this, some believe that only Duterte can successfully negotiate a peace treaty with the National Democratic Front –Philippines and end one of the longest-running communist rebellions in the world.
It is unclear whether Duterte has enough resources to mount a nationwide campaign, since he only decided to run for president last December. His biggest concern is winning voters who do not approve of his personal behaviour, style of governance, and some of his proposed programs like the restoration of the death penalty. As for his friends from the Left, they cannot ignore Duterte’s proximity to retired generals and former officials of the unpopular Gloria Arroyo regime.
*Filipinos have been using the grammatically-incorrect word ‘presidentiable’ since the 1990s but it was only last year when it was finally included in the Oxford English Dictionary
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices, a social media platform.