Philippines election: Senator Grace Poe cleared by Supreme Court to launch presidential bid after residency issues

Decision overturns the exclusion of popular pro-poor figure who one analyst says is the candidate to beat

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The Independent Online

A former nursery school teacher who was raised by adoptive parents after being abandoned as a baby has been given the go-ahead by the Philippines Supreme Court to run in the presidential elections in two months’ time.

Senator Grace Poe, 47, had been disqualified by the country’s elections commission last December on the grounds that she was not a natural-born citizen and did not have the 10 years of Filipino residency required of presidential candidates – despite having been front-runner in the polls.

But on Tuesday she was able to tell a cheering crowed of left-wing supporters at an International Women’s Day rally in Manila that the decision to exclude her had been overturned by the country’s most senior panel of judges by nine votes to six.

“This victory isn’t only mine,” a triumphant Ms Poe declared in a park in the centre of the capital. “This is most of all a victory for the oppressed, a victory for those who are burdened by this system and a victory for women. 

“Women’s role goes beyond looking after homes: we can do a lot of things. Let’s make 2016 the year when women triumph in government.”

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Asked afterwards how she felt, she replied: “Relieved, but this is only the start. We need to do a lot of things. There is now a big opening for us to start our work.” 

The decision provided a major boost to the campaign of Ms Poe, who is already leading in popularity polls, and removes a cloud of uncertainty from what is shaping up to be a tightly fought four-way race to succeed President Benigno Aquino III, whose six-year term concludes at the end of June. 

Pulse Asia, an independent polling body, placed Ms Poe in the lead with the support of 26 per cent of respondents in a survey conducted last month of 1,800 people nationwide, followed by Vice-President Jejomar Binay, who got 25 per cent. The former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, whose candidacy has been backed by Ms Aquino, and tough-talking Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of southern Davao city, each got 21 per cent. Ms Poe’s lead was slightly wider in January.

“She will now be the candidate to beat,” political analyst Ramon Casiple said, adding that people who were concerned that she may be taken out of the race because of her legal troubles now have a clear choice. 

Although relatively new to politics, Ms Poe carries a popular family name and has a heart-rending life story in a country where many are swayed more by personalities than policy positions.

She was adopted by one of the Philippines’ most famous movie couples after being left at a Roman Catholic church by her natural parents, whose identity is unknown. Her late father, Fernando Poe Jr, was an action star who mostly played roles as a defender of the poor in a country where about a quarter of the more than 100 million Filipinos subsist in poverty.

She moved to the US as a student and settled in Virginia, marrying an American and giving up her Philippines citizenship until she decided to return home in 2004, after her father died. She came top in the Philippine senatorial race in 2013, running on his legacy. She was also accused by the election commission of lacking the required 10-year Philippine residency to be a candidate for president – a claim that the Supreme Court also rejected.

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Appearing often in campaign sorties in a white shirt and blue denim trousers that many people identify with her father, Ms Poe has run on the same pro-poor platform that he supported, pledging that, under her presidency, “nobody will be left behind”. 

Whoever takes over from President Aquino will need to grapple with poverty, corruption and Marxist and Muslim insurgencies – persistent problems facing a country that three decades ago toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos through a “people power” revolt. 

The election is being closely watched by investors who fear the political succession could scupper average economic growth of more than 6 per cent a year and derail efforts to crack down on corruption made under Ms Aquino.

Ms Poe has campaigned on a pro-poor campaign, promising to build on Ms Aquino’s programmes of creating jobs and building infrastructure, which have helped to propel the Philippines to become one of Asia’s fastest growing economies.