Philippine presidential race: Will it be Duterte, Roxas or Poe?

Photo: Facebook page of Rodrigo Duterte

By Zofia Reych

This coming Monday (9 May), Filipino voters will go to the polls and choose their 16th president, amid an election that has been mired in controversy. Fifty-five million voter records have been hacked, candidates have been accused of corruption and ineligibility, and some commentators fear that the country’s young democracy might be under threat.

The race is proving to be closely fought between three main contenders that could not be more different: a mayor with alleged ties to vigilante groups, a former New York investment banker, and a celebrity turned senator. A recent Pulse Asia poll placed Rodrigo Duterte in first (33%), Manuel Roxas in second (22%) and Grace Poe in third (21%) place.

The (un)likely president

The Mayor of Davao city for 22 years, Rodrigo Duterte is perhaps the most interesting and at the same time most controversial figure in the this year’s presidential race. Known as ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘The Punisher’, he has been widely compared to Donald Trump as a result of provocative, populist promises and a lack of a solid foreign policy outline.

In a recent joke, Duterte declared his regret at not being among the first to rape a Canadian woman attacked and killed by a gang in 1989. The disgusting remark not only did not bring any negative outcomes (apart from a twitter #RapeIsNoAJoke campaign) but his polling results have consistently risen.

Although formally a member of a left-leaning PDP-Laban party, Duterte is known for his nationalistic agenda. His electorate was likely delighted by his threats to cut diplomatic ties with both US and Australia after they criticised Duterte’s rape related statements.

Duterte’s lead is also unlikely to be affected by allegations of using phantom employees to hide income. He dismissed the accusations filed by Senator Sonny Trillanes, and publicised both his pesos and dollars bank statements with Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI). Although they failed to include crucial days in March 2016, Duterte’s spokesman pointed out that the dates fell on a weekend when no major transfer of funds could be ordered.

Duterte’s cocky attitude might be simply a media game intended to attract votes but more worrying is his lack of experience in foreign policy and national government. Given his otherwise nationalistic agenda, his plans for closer ties with China are not only surprising but could also have a negative impact on the country’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP).

Backed by the influential church of Iglesia ni Cristo, whose members are known for bloc voting, it seems like Rodrigo Duterte is set to win the race for Malacañang. His widespread support might be a proof of the electorate’s neo-authoritarian longings in a country where political parties are weak, the South is still deeply volatile, and the poor are vulnerable to empty promises from politicians.

The alternatives

Despite trailing in the polls, Manuel “Mar” Roxas II remains hopeful. “As I see it, Mayor Duterte and I are the only ones left in the fight for the presidency,” said the governing party’s candidate at a conference earlier this week.

The recent poll showed his results at a 22% level, far behind the frontrunner, but he remains a strong contender likely to be supported by the electorate that brought Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III to power six years ago. Although in a recent speech the current president refrained from openly backing his party colleague, Roxas has stated on several occasions his intentions to continue Aquino’s policies.

Unfortunately for Roxas, as a grandson of a former president and a member of the cultural elite, he is not perceived well by the low-income voters who form most of the country’s electorate and are likely to fall prey to the kind of populism used by Duterte.

The third candidate, Senator Grace Poe, with a support of 21% of voters, continues to “believe in her winnability”. Her candidacy could not be more different from Duterte’s. She stands on a platform of economic liberalism, ready to boost the economy by reducing the cost of imports and keen to forge free trade deals such as the TTP. She also promises to slash income tax for the lowest earners and reduce corporate tax for companies.

Poe’s appeal is of a safe pair of hands, certainly economically, but her inexperience in foreign policy has led to questions regarding her ability to take on China’s continuing expansionism. She also does not fit the bill as a strong, aggressive leader that is yearned for by a country deeply influenced by economic inequality. Although most likely to alleviate the pay gap, Poe might not be given the chance to employ her progressive policies.

The pull of candidates is completed by Jojo Binay and Roy Seneres at 17% and 2% respectively.

The second race

Remaining in the shadow of the controversy-ridden election is the race for the second most important post in the country – that of vice-president. According to a Pulse Asia survey, the two strongest candidates, Liberal Party’s Leni Robredo and Bongbong Marcos, son of the former president Ferdinand Marcos, are tied for the first place. The Robredo-Marcos duel is representative of the country’s split between the Liberal and the conservative Nacionalista parties.