Philippine face-off: One outsider, two insiders and a crime-fighter out for blood vie for the presidency

When he becomes president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte cautions that there will be blood. “There would be no such thing as bloodless cleansing,” he recently told an audience of university students in Manila. The 71-year-old Duterte is not speaking metaphorically. Nicknamed “The Punisher” for his ruthless tactics fighting crime, he has been accused of […]

When he becomes president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte cautions that there will be blood.

“There would be no such thing as bloodless cleansing,” he recently told an audience of university students in Manila.

The 71-year-old Duterte is not speaking metaphorically.

Nicknamed “The Punisher” for his ruthless tactics fighting crime, he has been accused of running vigilante death squads that target suspected wrongdoers in the southern city of Davao, where he has served as mayor for seven terms, totalling more than 22 years.

“If you are a criminal that preys on innocent people, you are a legitimate target of assassination,” he said in 2009.

Davao, previously known as the murder capital of the Philippines, is today considered by many as the most peaceful city in southeast Asia.

Now, Duterte wants to take on the entire nation. Vowing to bring peace and order in the Philippines within his first six months as president, he has won over many supporters, both rich and poor.

“If I become president, I will kill all of you,” Duterte warned potential lawbreakers during his Manila speech. “The fishes in Manila Bay will fatten up – because I will dump all of you in there.”

The tough-talking approach seems to be working. In the latest national poll, Duterte ranked second among four major candidates campaigning for the election on May 9.

“I don’t care if I go to hell,” he has said, “as long as the people I serve will live in paradise.”

Under the leadership of current president Benigno Aquino, the Philippines has enjoyed six years of robust economic development with some of the highest growth rates in Asia. What is at stake at the forthcoming election – according to ratings agencies, international organisations and foreign investors – is political stability: for voters to elect a successor who can sustain the country’s progress.

More than 54 million voters, or about half of the population, have registered to vote on May 9. Two-thirds are expected to turn out in the polls.

The election is poised to be highly contentious, with four major candidates, who offer similar policy positions, in a virtual statistical tie.

So how does a voter decide on who to support? In a political arena driven by popularity, platform comes only second to personality. As The Economist observed of Philippine elections election: “Those with the best-known names, not necessarily the best policies, tend to win.”

Thus, if you want to stand out from the pack, you’d better have a compelling story to tell. Grace Poe, who is currently edging ahead in the polls, has a good one.

Abandoned at a cathedral as an infant, she was adopted by Fernando Poe Jr and Susan Roces, two of the country’s biggest film superstars. Fernando ran for the presidency in 2004, but was defeated in a controversial election where the winner, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was accused of vote rigging. Months later, he died from illness.

Seeking revenge for her father, Poe returned to Manila from the United States, where she had been living with her own family and working as a pre-school teacher. In 2013, the woman with zero public-service experience ran for one of the 12 seats in the Philippine senate. Astonishingly, she received the highest number of votes among all 33 candidates. The 47-year-old Poe’s success can be attributed largely to her late father’s enduring popularity. As an action star in movies, Fernando often played the defender of the downtrodden.

In turn, Poe promises to fight for the poor in a country where a quarter of citizens live in poverty. What she offers is an alternative figure to many of her veteran opponents: an image untarnished by corruption.

And while a political neophyte, Poe understands the need to tell a tale.

“The story of my life started in a church,” she said when she announced her bid at a popular Manila church. “So I decided to go in front of a church to launch the next chapter of my life.”

If Poe is young blood, Jejomar Binay is an old-timer.

Currently the country’s vice-president, the 73-year-old has been beloved by the poor since his political career started in 1986 as mayor of Makati, the central business district in the Philippines.

Binay previously topped polls, until a stream of allegations of corruption emerged: city contracts awarded to family members, building projects overpriced and hundreds of ghost employees on his payroll. His family’s new and ballooning riches, he insists, have been earned legitimately and he denies the allegations. But Philippine authorities are investigating him, and he now is in third position in most polls.

Unlike most Philippine politicians who hail from elite families, Jejomar – a portmanteau of Jesus, Joseph and Mary – comes from a humble background. Today the Binays are one of the most powerful families in the country, with his three children serving in government.

The vice-president has been the most vocal critic of current president Aquino, condemning the government for underspending on development, despite the significant role he has played in the very institution he is denouncing. Binay’s persistent appeal reflects the loyalty of Filipino voters. Quizzed by a TV reporter last week why he still favoured Binay despite the corruption allegations, Ronaldo Benitez, a 68-year-old who has backed Binay since the 1980s, said: “He cares for us. He gave us free health care. He gives us free cakes during our birthday.”

While Binay has climbed to the top of the political ladder, Benitez continues to work as a fish vendor in a market.

“Only someone who was once poor,” Benitez said, “will be able to understand what we’re going through.”

When he ran for president in 2010, Aquino promised to steer the country in the right direction. It even inspired a slogan, “Daang Matuwid” (Straight Path), that he continues to refer to today.

But while Aquino, who cannot run again as presidents can only serve one term in the country, enjoys a high popularity rating in the Philippines, his presidency has faced several roadblocks, primarily his government’s slow response to aid the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the Philippine coastline in 2013, killing 6,300 and affecting millions.

Crucially, the criticism focused on Aquino’s minister of interior and local government, Mar Roxas, who was blasted for poor resource management and was perceived by victims as out of touch with their situation.

Aquino has anointed Roxas as successor – and the latter has struggled to find his own footing throughout the campaign season.

Educated in the US, Roxas worked as an investment banker in New York before returning to the Philippines. Aside from serving in congress and the senate, he has worked as minister of trade and transportation. The 58-year-old grandson of a former Philippine president for whom he was named, Mar Roxas is running on a platform that aims to build on Aquino’s legacy. Yet Roxas has not enjoyed the support his camp expected from the public, with the candidate placing fourth in polls.

Because while Roxas has been a capable public servant, he has been a flawed candidate, particularly when it comes to connecting with the common voter. Maligned as elitist, he has been mocked, for instance, for his inclination to pose for the cameras while engaged in blue-collar jobs.

“People know him as a very rich person related to a very rich family, part of the political elite,” Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform told The New York Times. “The poor cannot identify with him. When he tries to do things in a symbolic way, like carrying a sack of rice, people make fun of him.”

At a rally last week, Roxas drew more flak when he distributed copies of a comic book that dramatically depicted him as a hero leading the victims of Typhoon Haiyan to safety. The comics became a social media sensation, for all the wrong reasons.

In this particular circus, yesterday’s headliner has turned into a mere sideshow. But it’s a tight race and anything can happen. The most recent polling data has Poe at 28 per cent, Duterte at 24, Binay at 23 and Roxas at 19.

In a speech last week, Aquino himself went for broke. He appealed to the Filipino public’s loyalty and pushed for a Roxas victory.

“When I sought your votes, I promised you that I would put this country in a much better state,” he said. “You don’t just let go. We have a contract.”

James Gabrillo is a former arts editor at The National. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge studying musical spectacle in the Philippines.

Source: art & life

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