And the Winner of Mamasapano is…Senator Grace Poe

By Zachary Abuza

Senator Grace Poe of the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

Senator Grace Poe of the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

The national outrage in the Philippines following the clash in Mamasapano that left 44 Special Action Force (SAF) police dead after an encounter with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has put the entire Mindanao peace process in doubt. The Congress of the Philippines has put the hearings on the enabling legislation Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) on hold, though promising a vote by June. Passage of the BBL without significant and potentially deal-breaking amendments is now in doubt, especially following a leaked video showing the execution of a wounded SAF at close range that went viral. The MILF insists that the incident was a tragic encounter caused by the SAF’s refusal to employ existing ceasefire mechanisms.

Two of the 13 senators who originally sponsored the peace bill have withdrawn their support; a third is close to withdrawing. Both chambers of Congress have held rancorous hearings on the incident in what have devolved from fact finding into partisan grandstanding ahead of the 2016 elections.

The potential failure to pass the BBL, or even its delay given the very tight timetable for passage, the holding of a plebiscite and implementation, will have major consequences for peace and security in the Philippines. Failure would represent a major setback for the people of Mindanao, after four decades of war and conflict.

But if the people of Mindanao and the peace process are the losers from the Mamasapano incident, the clear winner has been Senator Grace Poe, who many in the electorate, especially in the urban middle class, are now hoping becomes the establishment candidate to succeed President Benigno Aquino in the May 2016 election.

The leading candidate remains Vice President Jejomar Binay, an ally of ousted former president Joseph Estrada. Under the Philippine system, the vice president can hail from a different party than the president. But Binay has been saddled with a host of corruption allegations, including shady land deals from when he was mayor of Makati, his enormous estate and unexplained wealth, and alleged misappropriation of funds from the Boy Scouts, of which he is the titular head, to fund his 2010 campaign. Binay is clearly no boy scout. And yet, despite the preponderance of evidence of corruption and an ongoing Congressional inquiry that would be enough to sink most politicians, his poll numbers are holding steady.

President Aquino’s preferred successor is Mar Roxas, yet the Liberal Party stalwart has remained flat in the polls. Despite his clean reputation, critics view wealthy and U.S.-educated Roxas as an elitist. President Aquino appointed him Secretary of the Interior before the devastating typhoon season in order to give him executive experience and a higher profile. He did an adequate job, and the government’s preparations and response were far better than the previous year’s Typhoon Haiyan debacle. And yet, his poll numbers fell from 13 to 6 percent between September and November 2014.

In the same poll, Senator Poe, who had to that point not even indicated that she would run, surged from 10 to 18 percent. The results generated a sudden hype and excitement about her candidacy. In a mid-December 2014 Social Weather Station poll, Binay still led with 37 percent, Poe followed with 21 percent, but surprisingly it was Roxas who surged to 19 percent.

Poe has remained coy about her intentions. Her father, Ferdinand Poe Jr., a former actor turned political populist close to ousted former president Joseph Estrada, lost the presidency to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004. At 46 and only a senator since 2012, Grace Poe is a political novice, yet she received the highest number of votes of all senators. She ran for the Senate as an independent, though part of the pro-Aquino coalition. The party system in the Philippines is weak, but running for president as an independent without a party machine would not be easy. In April 2014, Poe stated that she would not consider running in 2016.

But Poe’s level headed composure in the five Senate hearings on Mamasapano have bolstered her reputation. Amid emotional outbursts and parochial political posturing from other senators, she has looked very presidential. Her leadership of the Senate Committee on Public Order hearings have struck the right balance of respectful for the losses, empathetic, but impartial and concerned with fact finding, not political point scoring. Most importantly, Poe is cognizant of the strategic ramifications of the peace processing failing.

Poe stands in sharp contrast to Senate leader Alan Peter Cayetano, himself a candidate for president, who is calling for the scrapping of the BBL and accusing the MILF of continuing to engage in terrorism. Cayetano publicly lambasted the president’s negotiators, questioning their loyalty because of their support of the peace process.

Meanwhile the mayor of Davao, Rudy Duterte is also testing the waters, hoping to build a national consensus for his federalism campaign. He is expected to announce his candidacy in March, though some media commentators have suggested that he’s just angling to be vice president. Duterte has a shady human rights record behind his get tough anti-crime record. He has alarmed others with his pronouncements that extralegal measures are needed to effectively reform Philippine politics.

Other undeclared candidates include Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, a leftist who is ailing from cancer, as well as Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator. Though he has a formidable war chest, Marcos Jr. is a polarizing figure and has recently come under fire for embellishing his overseas academic records.

Philippine politics are an embodiment of their national culture: emotional and raucous. Senator Poe has resisted this and been a model of thoughtful composure, and remained committed to rule of law, separation of powers, and good governance. But a weak party system, an electorate unfazed by corruption, and the enduring legacy of politically powerful dynastic clans means the 2016 election remains wide open.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is principal of Southeast Asia Analytics, and writes on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Follow him on twitter @ZachAbuza.


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