Which Philippines presidential hopeful will the US back?
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Which Philippines presidential hopeful will the US back?

IT has become my habit to take a look at how the U.S. government will play its hands every presidential election in the Philippines.

No one has ever been elected president in the country without the support – covert or overt – of incumbent U.S. administrations, and based on their foreign policy and conduct of international relations, the U.S. is unlikely to deviate from the practice.

The Philippine elections in May also come in the same year the U.S. will be having its own presidential elections.

Unlike the U.S., which by large is contested by 2 political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, the Philippines has as many parties as there are presidential candidates.

Not since Ferdinand Marcos was ‘re-elected’ in 1969 has there been a president who got the majority of votes cast in an election. Of course, the 1986 snap elections were an aberration.

This year would be no different. But whoever gets elected to Malacañang (official presidential residence), will most likely get the smallest plurality of votes since the multi-party system was adopted in the 1987 Constitution.

There are five major contenders in the May 2016 elections with four of them within striking distance of each other and with ever-changing leads in the surveys for voters’ preference.

As a rule, the U.S. always goes with the status quo and whoever possesses the least risk for its vast interests in the country.

It also helps if a presidential candidate has a history of close association with the U.S.

The Aquino bet

Having said that, former senator Mar Roxas should be the logical choice as the preferred candidate of the U.S.

Roxas has the pedigree and history of familial relations with the U.S. government that runs back to the time of his grandfather Manuel Roxas, the first Filipino president after the U.S. ‘granted’ the Philippines independence.

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Former Senator Mar Roxas. Pic: AP.

The Roxas patriarch was responsible for the defunct U.S. Military Bases Agreement, the U.S. Parity Rights and Treaty of General Relations.

His father Gerardo Roxas, however, was a staunch opponent of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who declared Martial Law in 1972.

Roxas, the presidential candidate, was an investment banker who attended the University of Pennsylvania (remember the Wharton University brouhaha?). He spent most of his adolescent and early adult life in the U.S., coming home only after his congressman-brother died in the middle of the latter’s term.

He is President Benigno Aquino III’s anointed one and has strongly adopted ‘continuity’ of ‘daang matuwid‘ (straight path) as his campaign platform.

However, Roxas is trailing in all presidential surveys – ahead only of non-campaigning Miriam Defensor Santiago.

He is also branded as an incompetent and indecisive leader who may not be the right choice to unite the fractured Philippine society. Of course, his biggest drawback is his unpopularity.

Binay’s baggage

Vice President Jejomar Binay is probably the one candidate who prepared the earliest and the most for this year’s presidential run.

Since joining hands with former President Joseph Estrada – disgraced for widespread corruption and convicted, but later pardoned – he has carefully plotted his way to be where he is now.

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Vice President Jejomar Binay. Pic by Edwin Espejo

Binay is leading the presidential surveys by a close margin. But he has also seen his lead vanished last year during the height of the corruption scandal that hit him in 2014.

He has regained that lead, but many are wary of his controversial past. The corruption issue also extends to his son Junjun and his wife Elenita, both former mayors of Makati, who are facing similar charges.

Binay has refused to face his accusers at the Philippine Senate and has now adopted a focused and disciplined campaign – don’t talk, just keep moving.

The ex-American Grace Poe

Like Roxas, Senator Grace Poe obtained a college degree in the U.S., graduating from Boston University.

She renounced her Filipino citizenship and became an American like her Filipino-American husband but came back to regain it.

She is the adopted daughter of childless Philippine cinema couple Fernando Poe and Susan Roces, although persistent rumors claim she is the daughter from an illicit affair between a powerful politician and a matinee actress of the 1960s.

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Senator Grace Poe. Pic by Edwin Espejo

Poe’s political stock shot up when she topped the 2013 senatorial elections, campaigning on the popularity of her father who lost to former but detained President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the 2004 elections.

Poe’s candidacy, however, is still up in limbo with questions on her status as a natural-born citizen, problematic residency, and most of all, her loyalty. She is facing a host of disqualification charges.

Her lack of machinery and the uncertainty of her status as a presidential candidate had her popularity plummeting. After she grabbed the lead in the voters’ preference surveys over Binay practically all of last year, she is slowly sliding in the current political standing.

Poe’s platform of government promises to be more of the same as the Aquino administration, prompting supporters and critics alike to wonder if she is Aquino’s back-up candidate to Roxas.

The Maverick Mayor

Unconventional and fiercely independent, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte represents the anti-thesis of Philippine politics.

Duterte is trying to break the stranglehold of Manila-based politicians and leadership that have occupied the presidential palace by the Pasig River.

In fact, no one residing outside of Luzon has been elected president since Carlos P. Garcia won in 1953.

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Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Pic by Edwin Espejo

Duterte’s heavy-handed leadership style may repel a few who want presidentiables to be more refined. But his appeal cuts across the social strata of Philippine society.

Moreover, he has taken unorthodox positions on several issues like job contractualization, death penalty, birth control, illegal drugs, crime and corruption.

He has also repeatedly tweeted the U.S. government and even denied the U.S. forces from conducting training and military exercises in Davao, despite the Visiting Forces Agreement.

He once also chided the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for spiriting out an American who was maimed when a bomber exploded inside the latter’s hotel room in the busy business district in Davao City.

And his act of burning the Singaporean flag in 1995 when Flor Contemplacion was hanged speaks volumes of his disinterest in diplomatic tact.

The last candidate – Miriam Defensor Santiago – almost become inconsequential even before the campaign period could start.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Conventional wisdom will have Roxas as the primary favorite of U.S. interests in the country. Not only is his pedigree tested, but he also best represents the status quo and would be a stable bridge in the transition to a post Aquino-government.

But Roxas comes with the baggage of being too rigid and too detached. He may not be able to keep the stability the U.S. is hoping for, as the current mounting dislike for him will surely lead to intense political division.

It is important to assess how a Binay win would impact those who are responsible for his legal mess and the continuity of reforms the U.S. government has silently supported in the justice and finance departments to stamp out crime and corruption in the country.

Grace Poe is largely untested and may not have the track record from which the U.S. could work with after Aquino is gone.

Of all the credible contenders for the presidency, Duterte is the most unpredictable for U.S. interests in the country.

His well-reported relations with rebel forces – from Nur Misuari to Murad ‘al Haj’ Ebrahim to the late Kumander Parago – have many in the diplomatic community jittery and on their toes.

But Duterte could also play a key role in finally quelling the Moro rebellion and quieting the communists.

One thing to keep in mind: the U.S. has seen its neighbors in Latin and South Americas go out the Leftist way.

Will they allow a perceived Left-leaning candidate emerge in Asia?

It is too early to predict how this election will go. But almost everybody who won the presidency – with the exception of Estrada who sent Orly Mercado – visited the U.S. during their campaign periods.

Let us see who will troop to Washington D.C. and Capitol Hill between now and May 9.