So far, opposition leader Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay and Aquino ally Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II have declared their candidacies.
Other contenders include Senator Grace Poe, daughter of a famous movie actor, who tops the polls, and Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, known for his effective leadership and iron fist. They have yet to announce their candidacies. Duterte, however, has backtracked and said he was no longer running for president; but his aides say otherwise.
Poe does not belong to any political party but is part of the ruling coalition. In her two years in the Senate, she has championed food security, the freedom of information bill and led a probe on corruption in the police force.
Roxas II, a Wharton graduate and former investment banker, is credited with making the Philippines a business process outsourcing hub when he was trade secretary. As senator, he authored the cheaper medicines law, which allowed the use of generic drugs. But when he headed the transport and communications department, he was seen as indecisive, slowing down major infrastructure projects.
Binay, who was Makati mayor for 20 years, provided social services for the poor, gaining their loyalty. But he faces plunder charges for siphoning off millions of pesos from large construction projects. He places second in the polls for presidential choices.
On July 31, Aquino endorsed Roxas as the administration candidate and said continuity would be the ruling party’s battle cry in the elections.
But more needs to be done. Unemployment is still a pressing problem; the jobless rate is 6.7 percent, the highest in Southeast Asia. Millions of Filipinos are forced to take jobs overseas as domestic helpers, construction and factory workers.
The next president will have to lift millions out of poverty and strengthen and broaden the middle class. There are more poor families than middle-income ones, a study shows. The wealth of billionaires led by Henry Sy, John Gokongwei Jr. and Enrique Razon, is “growing faster than the entire economy.”
In its recent rating, Standard & Poor’s said the Philippines could be upgraded from its current “BBB” with “stable” outlook, the highest ever given to the country, if the government undertook structural and institutional reforms. Analysts say these include changing the highly unequal structure of Philippine society; making government institutions accountable, transparent, competent and effective; and ending the internal insurgencies.
As key Aquino adviser and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said, "What we’ve seen is basic good governance. We need to do structural reforms next and aim to be a Chile...where survival issues will no longer be at the top of the agenda.”
Aquino’s endorsement will be valuable as he remains popular. He is untainted by dirty deals and is perceived to have kept a level playing field in business. “No other president was so popular for so long,” Mahar Mangahas, who heads a leading survey firm, Social Weather Stations, wrote.
Personality politics, however, could undermine reforms and obstruct continued growth. The trouble lies in the country’s political culture. Succession planning is futile because of weak, fractious political parties and the dominance of personalities rather than platforms. Who wins is determined by twists of fate. And elections are huge popularity contests.
History offers examples. In 1986, Corazon Aquino, a housewife, was thrust to the presidency by the murder of her husband, an opposition leader. Similarly, her death in 2009 propelled her son, Benigno III, then a neophyte senator, to the presidency. For Joseph Estrada, a wildly popular actor, it was the movies that led him to politics and eventually to Malacañang Palace in 1992.
Undoubtedly, the stakes are high in the upcoming elections. Under Aquino’s watch, the Philippines enjoyed a consistent boost to its economy, as the former “sick man” of Asia raced ahead of its neighbors. In 2015, annual growth in gross domestic product is expected to reach 6.4 percent surpassing 6.1 percent in 2014, according to the Asian Development Bank.
This makes the Philippines the “exception” in the region, the International Monetary Fund said. Shanaka Jayanath Peiris, IMF resident representative, recently told reporters, “We see falling potential growth in the world and in Asia in general, but the Philippines is an outlier.”
On other fronts, the fight against poverty and corruption has resulted in some successes. The conditional cash transfers, the Aquino government’s centerpiece program to uplift the poor, have covered 4.4 million families, making it the third largest in the world, after Brazil and Mexico. The ADB has called the CCT “an increasingly effective weapon in the fight against poverty in the Philippines.”
Other firsts in contemporary history have taken place during Aquino’s presidency. Three senators have been in jail for a year now, accused of taking massive kickbacks from congressional funds. A chief justice was impeached for lying in his assets statement.
Internationally, perception of the Philippines has improved. The National Competitiveness Council has tracked various global rankings which show that, from 2011 to 2014, the Philippines has been the most improved country in four of these: the Ease of Doing Business Report; Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index; and the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index.
Congress also recently passed an anti-trust law, 20 years after it was first filed. It is expected to increase fair competition and protect consumers.
Many of these gains could be set back if a corrupt leader wins. A four-way race—Binay, Poe, Roxas and Duterte—where the votes would be split, increases the chances of a Binay victory. This scenario is keeping anxiety levels high as the country may miss a rare opportunity on its road to “inclusive growth.”
Marites D. Vitug is editor at large of Rappler and author of several books on Philippine current affairs.
More articles by Marites D. Vitug