Grace Poe may be barred from Philippine presidential race

Ms Grace Poe greeting her supporters in October. The latest poll results show she is in a tie for the lead to be the next Philippine president with another candidate. However, the seven-man election commission ruled yesterday that Ms Poe is not quali
Ms Grace Poe greeting her supporters in October. The latest poll results show she is in a tie for the lead to be the next Philippine president with another candidate. However, the seven-man election commission ruled yesterday that Ms Poe is not qualified to run for president.PHOTO: REUTERS

Front runner Grace Poe may be struck off the ballot after poll panel disqualifies her

Senator Grace Poe has crawled back to the top of the heap in the race to become the Philippines' next president, but she may not even be on the ballot come election time next May.

In a decision that risks creating "electoral mayhem", the seven- man election commission yesterday ruled that Ms Poe is not qualified to run for president.

It affirmed earlier decisions by two of its divisions that Ms Poe, as a foundling, is not a natural-born Filipino.

The 47-year-old senator, long rumoured to be an illegitimate child of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has been unsuccessful in trying to locate her biological parents.

She was abandoned as a baby on the steps of a church in Iloilo city 620km south of the capital Manila. She was later raised by Philippine movie icons Fernando Poe Jr and Susan Roces.

The election commission also concluded Ms Poe had not been a resident of the Philippines for longer than 10 years since she returned from the United States in 2006, where she had lived for most of her adult life and became a US citizen in 2001. She renounced her American citizenship in 2010, after she was appointed head of the government censor board.

The Constitution requires a minimum 10-year residency for those running for president.

At a news conference, the election commission's chair Andres Bautista said Ms Poe has five days to secure a court order that will allow her to stay in the race.

Otherwise, he said, Ms Poe's name would be struck off the ballots. That would effectively end her run. "Right now, she's still on the list," said Mr Bautista.

Reacting to her disqualification, Ms Poe said in a statement: "I remain undaunted by it. I am a Filipino and qualified to offer myself as president of our country. The (election commission) cannot change that, much less deprive our people of their right to choose our next leader."

Her lawyers said they hope to get an order from the Supreme Court barring poll officials from removing Ms Poe's name from the election commission's list of presidential candidates.

"A scenario in which people end up voting for Poe just to see her irreversibly disqualified is bound to create more commotion, if not electoral mayhem. Given her popularity, there's bound to be a backlash," said political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University. The election commission disclosed its ruling just hours after the release of the results of a poll showing Ms Poe in a tie for the lead with Vice-President Jejomar Binay, 73, with 26 per cent each.

Ms Poe used to have a commanding lead, with double-digit advantages over Mr Binay, but persistent allegations that she is not qualified to run for president have been a drag on her polling numbers.

Last month, she slid to No. 2 behind anti-crime crusader Rodrigo Duterte, 70.

But in a sign of how unpredictable the Philippines' presidential race has become, Mr Duterte, who electrified voters with outlandish remarks like vowing to kill five criminals a week, has sunk to third place, with 20 per cent.

Mr Binay, meanwhile, has charged back to the front of the pack, as allegations that he orchestrated massive corruption schemes when he was mayor of the nation's top financial district begin to dissipate.

Former interior minister Mar Roxas, standard bearer of President Benigno Aquino's Liberal Party, has moved to second place, with 22 per cent. Bringing up the rear is Senator Miriam Santiago, with only 4 per cent support.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Twist in Philippine presidential race'. Print Edition | Subscribe