With a little over a month to go until election day, four of the five Philippine presidential candidates remain locked in a tight race. The stakes are high: whoever wins on 9 May will shape the future of the Philippines’ economic transformation from the ‘sick man of Asia’ into a ‘rising tiger’ and the country’s South China Sea policy.

The current frontrunner is Grace Poe, an untested Senator with movie-star parents, who recently won a legal battle affirming her eligibility to run. With her famous name, a powerful personal story, and policies that closely resemble those of outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, some commentators consider her the one to beat in what the latest polls show to be a tight race.

Poe's rise to political stardom began inauspiciously, having been abandoned on the doorstep of a cathedral as a baby. She ultimately was adopted by a superstar couple known as the King and Queen of Philippine cinema, Fernando Poe Jr (known locally as FPJ) and Susan Roces.

Growing up, Poe played tennis, earned a black belt in taekwondo, and cameoed in several of her father’s films. A champion debater in high school, she attended the University of the Philippines, Manila for two years before transferring to Boston College where she earned a degree in political science in 1991.

Soon after graduation, Poe married her high school sweetheart, Neil Llamanzares. The couple settled in the US state of Virginia and began raising their family (they have a son and two daughters). While in the US, Poe worked as a preschool teacher, a procurement liaison for the US Geological Survey, and a product manager for a scientific technologies company.

Poe returned to the Philippines in 2004 to help her father campaign for president. He lost, though it is widely believed that his opponent had rigged the election. When FPJ died several months later, Poe and her family moved back to the Philippines to be with her mother. She decided to pursue her long-standing interest in politics and social justice, and, inspired by her father’s race, became active in the fight against electoral fraud. She was appointed by the President in 2010 to serve as chair of the Movies and Television Regulatory and Classification Board where she demonstrated her efficacy by reforming its rating system.

In 2013, Poe exploded onto the political scene with her Senate win — she garnered a record 20 million votes. Poe hit the ground running, filing nearly 200 pieces of legislation on issues ranging from social justice to child nutrition to corruption. She also led the Senate’s investigation into the government’s botched counterterrorism operation in early 2015.

In her bid for the presidency, Poe is portraying herself as a public servant determined to serve the Filipino people and to rise above the corruption and cronyism that has been known to plague Philippine politics. She denies that she is seeking revenge for her father’s presidential defeat, explaining that she is honouring FPJ’s legacy of trying to help the oppressed. Poe often wears a plain white shirt and jeans for public appearances (as her father did) and is running on a similar pro-poor platform, pledging that ‘nobody will be left behind’ under her leadership. Despite her famous lineage, Poe makes an effort to appeal to a broad base, using self-deprecating humour to charm her audiences.

Poe is drawing support from a range of socioeconomic classes in part due to her father’s popularity as a champion for social justice. Philippine expert Mark Thompson adds, ‘On the one hand, she is sending out the message that she cares for the poor. On the other, she has cultivated the image of a hardworking, conscientious and not corrupt politician during her time as senator, which is liked by the elite'.

Ahead by a nose

Victory, however, is far from assured. Poe faces stiff competition from two so-called establishment candidates — sitting vice president and opposition leader Jejomar Binay and the ruling Liberal Party’s pick, Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II — and long-time mayor of Davao City Rodrigo Duterte, all of whom are polling within striking range.

  • A former human rights lawyer, Binay has gained popularity through his focus on social welfare programs for the poor, but he faces allegations of corruption during his two decades as mayor of the country’s financial district.
  • Roxas, an ex-banker and political blueblood with a clean image, pledges to continue ongoing reforms, although some have accused him of incompetent leadership in his recent cabinet stints and others have criticised his lack of charisma. 
  • A crime-busting mayor known as ‘Dirty Harry', Duterte has built support as an alternative candidate committed to defending law and order despite his reputation for heavy-handed leadership, womanising, and vigilante justice.
  • The final candidate, long-time Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is a recognised legal expert admired by the country’s youth, but she has only recently recovered from lung cancer and is trailing badly in the polls.

In what has been a colourful campaign, Poe’s path has not been straightforward. Filipino law requires presidential candidates to be a natural-born Filipino citizen and to have lived in the Philippines for the 10 years prior to the election, and Poe has spent months fending off legal charges related to her eligibility. In March, the Supreme Court ruled that she had fulfilled both requirements, but those petitioning against her continue to file appeals. Some Filipinos still question Poe’s loyalty, given that she temporarily renounced her Filipino citizenship while living in the United States.

At age 47, Poe is the youngest candidate in the presidential race by a decade and is facing harsh criticism for her lack of experience. Poe insists that her inexperience isn’t a disadvantage, highlighting her clean record and fresh perspective. During the first presidential debate, she explained: ‘Yes, I am new, but our problems are not new and many who have spent a long time in their positions have tried to fix them with old solutions.’

Although running as an independent, Poe aligns fairly closely with Aquino’s Liberal Party and most likely would maintain many of his policies if elected. She promises to continue Aquino’s fight against corruption and to take the country from ‘just growth to inclusive growth.’ On China, as Philippine maritime expert Lowell Bautista wrote in The Interpreter in February, Poe ‘supports the [South China Sea] arbitration case with China, but prefers a more multilateral diplomatic approach involving other states in the region, and one that nurtures and respects other aspects of Philippine-China relations, especially trade.’ Poe has not detailed her views on Manila’s closer relationship with Washington, although some speculate her victory would provide consistency on that issue as well. On the long-standing conflict with insurgents in the south, Poe generally favours better treatment for Muslims in the Philippines and may try to renegotiate some aspects of the ongoing peace process, according to Steven Rood of the Asia Foundation.

When it comes to what sort of leadership style Poe would bring to the presidency, she remains a bit of a mystery, not only because her time in politics has been so short but also because the media seems to focus on her personal story more than her approach and accomplishments. As a leader, Poe says she values sincerity, discipline, and organisation. Her colleagues describe her style as ‘forward, firm and efficient, but still very approachable.’ Commentators highlight her diligence and ‘grace under pressure’ but don’t often include specifics.

Poe’s husband credits the ‘Poe magic’ as contributing to her success, but Poe knows she’ll need more than that, telling one reporter, ‘The surname Poe can get me only so far. From thereon, I have to rely on my own capabilities.’

Regardless of whether Filipinos vote for her credentials or her last name, if elected, Grace Poe would see those capabilities quickly put to the test on issues ranging from unifying the country to responding to the forthcoming ruling on the South China Sea case. 

Photo by Marlo Cueto/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images