Portrait: Grace Poe

Despite her status as a relative outsider and political newcomer, Grace Poe is hoping to beat a pair of heavyweights to win the presidency of the Philippines

Daniel Besant
October 5, 2015
Portrait: Grace Poe

Despite her status as a relative outsider and political newcomer, Grace Poe is hoping to beat a pair of heavyweights to win the presidency of the Philippines

Illustration by Victor Blanco

“In the Philippines, everyone loves a winner and hates a loser,” said Aries Arugay of the University of the Philippines Diliman last month, when asked if Senator Grace Poe, 47, could clinch the Philippine presidency in May.

Grace Poe, Philippines
Mary Grace Sonora Poe-Llamanzares is commonly known as Grace Poe and was born on September 3, 1968, in Iloilo City. Her parents are unknown – some rumours suggest she is the daughter of the late president, Ferdinand Marcos – but she was adopted and brought up in Manila. She studied development at the University of the Philippines Manila and then moved on to finish undergraduate study at Boston College in the US, graduating with a degree in political science in 1991. She lived and worked in the US until 2004, when she returned to the Philippines following the death of her father. In 2010, Poe was appointed chairwoman of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. In 2012 she ran successfully as a senator on an independent ticket. Illustration: Victor Blanco

Although she only officially announced her candidacy last month, it seems she might already be a winner in the eyes of the public. Despite Poe being in her first term as a senator, an independent poll in June found 42% of Filipinos favoured her as the next president, putting her eight points ahead of the current vice-president, Jejomar Binay, and 21 points in front of Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas, the ‘anointed one’ of the current president, Benigno Aquino III. Both these candidates have formidable political machines behind them, ensuring block votes and campaign cash – something Poe has yet to accrue.

Her ‘fairytale’ backstory – found as an infant orphan, allegedly in a cathedral font, and adopted by local megastar movie couple Fernando Poe Jr and Susan Rocés – resonates with the public, as does the fact that her father was widely seen to be cheated out of a 2004 presidential election bid. Many might see her bid as “payback” for this episode, according to Arugay.

“Her rapport with the common people, the Fernando Poe legacy and her clean background have attracted an uncommonly high level of public support,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. But, he added, political inexperience and a lack of solid backing may count against her in the long run.

Right now, though, she has much to offer. “Her strengths are manifest,” said the Asia Foundation’s Steven Rood. “She is articulate in both Tagalog and English, composed in the face of media and a hard worker with much energy.” She is also renowned for her meticulous approach and, despite being a rookie senator, has had some of her bills passed, with others still progressing through the legislative mill.

So far, however, her political platform consists of “nothing that sets her apart from the other candidates” with their lofty, if vague, commitments to improving security and ending corruption and poverty, according to Arugay.

Her status as a relative unknown could also complicate matters, according to Rood. “Her short political career offers little evidence for who will be part of her executive team, what her views are on a wide range of issues and whether she can manage a large, complex organisation,” he said.

There is also a potentially major stumbling block in her path: she has faced questions over whether she qualifies as a presidential candidate. Although born in the Philippines, Poe resided in the US when studying in Boston in the late 1980s and took up dual citizenship, returning to the Philippines in 2004 and renouncing her US citizenship the same year. Some say that Poe therefore lacks the ten-year residency requirement for a presidential candidate, citing her statement in 2012 – when running for senator – that she had lived in the country for six-and-a-half years, meaning she is six months short of the requirement.

Aquino and Roxas had attempted to dissuade her from running, even trying to convince her to run as Roxas’ vice-presidential candidate. It is expected that with Poe and Roxas both running, opposition to Binay will be split. “Binay is going to benefit [from] Grace Poe running,” confirmed Arugay.

Despite running as an independent, without a powerful party machine behind her, Poe could confound her critics, according to Casiple. “All in all, she has the potential for the presidency, and even a historic presidency,” he said. “If she can assemble a good and competent team around her, she may yet surprise the more experienced, yet tainted, opponents.”

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