Insights and Analysis

Personalities and Issues Emerge Ahead of Philippines General Elections

February 17, 2016

By Steven Rood

Formal campaigning officially began last week for the May 9 general elections in the Philippines, with much flurry of advertisements and activities as candidates scrambled for last-minute publicity before campaign spending limits took effect.

Grace Poe

Formal campaigning officially began last week for the May 9 general elections in the Philippines. One of the five formal candidates, Grace Poe, greets supporters. Photo/Grace Poe for President Facebook page

The informal campaign had already been going on for months with the list of five formal candidates (Grace Poe, Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, Jejomar Binay, Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte, and Miriam Santiago) for president more-or-less final in October. Over the past few months, Poe, Duterte, and Binay have swapped turns in the lead in surveys, while Roxas has moved up somewhat and Santiago languishes in single digits.

Registering voters

Some 55 million voters are eligible this year, and turnout tends to be high for general elections in the Philippines. Election day is a holiday and a festive occasion as Filipinos cherish the opportunity to vote for their officials. This election is the first time that biometric verification (fingerprint and a photo) is required for a registered voter to be able to vote. After gradual implementation for some time now, over the last two years the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) began enforcing its “no bio, no boto” campaign, reminding voters with outdated registration that they had to go to COMELEC offices for biometric capture before Oct. 31, 2015. While there is some controversy over the fact that some who were previously registered may not be able to vote, the increased protection against fraud has been deemed worth it.


Aquino’s legacy

While press coverage tends to be critical of President Aquino (the Philippine press prefers to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”), he is in fact ending on a high note. His administration is rated by the general public more highly than any previous administration at the end of his term. Under his helm, the Philippines has experienced rapid economic growth, though poverty remains stubbornly high. The government has been able to increase investments in education, health, social services, and physical infrastructure.

While President Aquino made the current system work pretty well, in general there has not been much institutional change. The economy has not been opened up any further to foreign investment, many bureaucracies are sluggish (leading to delays in implementing projects), and politics remains quite personal. This has led to concern that the wrong individual following him could very quickly undo much of the progress that he has achieved.

His greatest failure – both policy-wise and in the eyes of the public – was the debacle in Mamasapano in Mindanao that led to death of 44 Special Action Force (“SAF 44”) troopers from the Philippine National Police in a raid to get Malaysian terrorist “Marwan.” While they got Marwan, a lack of effective coordination with the mechanisms of the ceasefire with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) led to a dramatic and tragic firefight with the MILF, who lost 17 men, and the death of several civilians. That shocking event naturally dominated headlines for weeks, stalled the implementation of the peace deal with the MILF, and is still regarded as an abject failure by most citizens.

Election issues

While many issues are at stake in the upcoming elections, they are unlikely to play much role in who actually gets elected. In the Philippines, elections are more about personalities. The COMELEC will hold three televised presidential debates, and op-ed columns will be full of policy discourse, but voters will still vote for the person that they find most “approachable.”  Voters count on officials to help with cash during financial emergencies (typically health issues, or the stereotypical occasions of “baptism, wedding, and burial”). More generally, elections put into position persons who will have to grapple in the future with unknown issues in many different spheres, so a focus on individual character makes sense – the quality of the candidates themselves is crucial.

Nevertheless, some issues are still key in this race. Most important to voters are economic ones. Inflation has been tamed, but employment and poverty remain concerns. Economic growth has been robust, but reduction in poverty has been slow, so all candidates have general ideas about how to help in specific areas, often focusing on agriculture. Only Senator Santiago and Vice President Binay, though, have pledged to re-visit the economically protectionist provisions of the 1987 Constitution, which have often been blamed for hindering inward investment to the Philippines.

It is the Muslim separatist insurgency, and possibilities of peace in Mindanao, that might play an unexpectedly large role given the public’s memory of the “SAF 44.” This debacle unfortunately rejuvenated a general prejudice in the Philippines, which is more than 90 percent Christian, against the Muslim minority. That prejudice was further stoked by inflammatory statements by officials and media over the past year. This will make it harder to re-start the peace process after the change of administration, but the need for such a deal is so great that we can expect that any subsequent administration will at least sit down at the table.

On the recently stalled peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has died in Congress and must now be handed off to the next administration, Mar Roxas is most likely to continue on the current track (based on a signed agreement, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro). Mayor Duterte has long had good relations with rebel groups (his “city” is as large as other provinces in the Philippines, with a large rural hinterland) as long as they don’t carry out activities in his town. He has expressed doubts, though, about whether to continue to pursue autonomy for the Bangsamoro instead of federalism. Grace Poe has been critical of some aspects of the peace process (and issued a scathing report on the January 2015 clash in Mamasapano), and so will likely try to re-negotiate some aspects while generally favoring better treatment for Muslims in the Philippines. Binay has been the most critical of the current peace agreement and how it has been implemented, declaring that he wishes once again to consult all stakeholders in Mindanao (Christians, indigenous peoples, and the other separatist organization, the Moro National Liberation Front) before agreeing to a deal.

The growing concern with terrorism, for which a peace deal may be antidote, tends to be confined to the security establishment, or residents of the Southern Philippines who are directly affected. In Mindanao, buses are bombed to help extort funds, electricity transmission towers are downed to disrupt the economy, and kidnapping is an occasional cottage industry. Thus the appeal of the candidate from the south, Mayor Duterte, and his tough stand against criminality. The possibility of the spread of the ideology of ISIS has barely entered the public mind.

With respect to the other major foreign policy issue, China’s sea claims near the Philippines, the dispute is now being taken to a tribunal in The Hague, which is unlikely to issue a decision on the South China Sea (or the West Philippine Sea, depending on one’s perspective) before the election. Recent reports of Chinese deployment of surface-to-air missiles have certainly put the issue back on the front pages. Vice President Binay has the clearest difference with the current administration’s policy as he wishes to deal bilaterally with China. The other four candidates content themselves with saying that they will wait for the Tribunal’s decision.

As the campaign started, Social Weather Stations released a survey undertaken the day before the formal opening, in which the lead of Vice President Binay had been reduced, with Senator Poe and Mayor Duterte nipping at his heels. In the vice presidential race, Senator Escudero had been consistently leading but Senator Bongbong Marcos has now tied him. Since Escudero is the running mate of Poe, and Marcos of Santiago, this finding just reinforces the separate nature of the races – in the Philippines, the two offices are voted separately and the winners are generally from different pairings.

When we recall that Senator Marcos is the son of former President Ferdinand Marcos, who was deposed in 1986 in the “People Power” revolution, it may seem like some things never change in the Philippines. Nevertheless, elections are always eventful; who wins, and what issues they choose to embrace, will no doubt shape the country’s future trajectory.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets as @StevenRoodPH, and he can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


  1. I beg to disagree with your statement that only VP Binay expressed his intention to speak with China bilaterally. Mayor Duterte also made a stand that GPH should talk bilaterally with China since we are not capable enough to counter it.

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