And they’re off! Cliffhanger presidential race begins
(The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – A cliffhanger of a race to lead the country began yesterday with five candidates claiming to have a genuine chance of succeeding President Aquino.

Since emerging from dictatorship three decades ago, the Philippines has seen its political scene dominated by elite families, celebrities, corruption and violence, which have contributed to near-constant chaos.

Those factors are once again dominant themes in this year’s contest for the presidency, as well as the thousands of national and local posts up for grabs in the May 9 elections.

The current presidential front-runner is Sen. Grace Poe, an inexperienced politician who is riding a wave of popularity among the tens of millions of poor Filipinos, due in part to her adopted father, Fernando Poe Jr.

FPJ became one of the nation’s most loved actors by playing characters who championed the poor, and nearly translated that popularity into political success by coming in second in the 2004 presidential elections.

Grace Poe, 47, launched her political career only three years ago when she entered the Senate, but has enjoyed huge success by trading on her father’s name while portraying herself as a reliable, honest advocate of the poor.

However, opponents have petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify Poe, arguing she cannot prove she is a natural-born Filipino because she does not know who her biological parents are.

The SC could also disqualify Poe for failing to meet residency rules, because she spent many years living in the US and gained US citizenship before renouncing it and returning home.

If Poe is knocked out, with a court ruling expected during the campaign, the nation would be plunged into political turmoil with three contenders who are currently each polling about 20 percent support ready to pounce.

A major contender is Vice President Jejomar Binay, who heads the main opposition party.

Binay, 73, has spent decades building a vast political machine but he has had to endure a barrage of corruption allegations that have seen him lose his front-runner status.

A Senate committee recently recommended Binay be charged with graft for kickbacks allegedly taken during his long stint as mayor of the nation’s financial capital, Makati.

President Aquino, who has overseen growth averaging 6.2 percent since 2010 and won international applause for trying to fight corruption, wants to hand over the keys to the presidential palace to longtime ally Mar Roxas.

However Roxas, 58, a US-educated investment banker from one of the nation’s richest families, has consistently trailed Poe and Binay in surveys. Analysts blame a lack of charisma and inability to connect with the poor masses.

In contrast, controversial populist politician Rodrigo Duterte, 70, is making a spectacular charge for the presidency by vowing a ruthless crackdown on crime.

Human rights groups have accused Duterte of running vigilante “death squads” that killed more than 1,000 suspected criminals during his many years as mayor of the major southern city of Davao.

Duterte has acknowledged the existence of the death squads and said in speeches and press conferences in recent months that he had overseen the killing of drug traffickers.

The fifth contender is Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who chose Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as her runningmate.

Santiago reiterated that she will be running for the highest position for the third time to stop the corruption in the government.

Despite claims she has beaten cancer and her popularity among the younger voters with her strong presence in social media, Santiago has consistently trailed in the surveys.

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