Philippines' Grace Poe returns to roots as cloud hangs over presidential bid

Senator Grace Poe speaking during a business forum in Manila, Philippines.
Senator Grace Poe speaking during a business forum in Manila, Philippines.PHOTO: REUTERS

KALIBO, Philippines (REUTERS) - Philippines Senator Grace Poe returned this week to the rustic island where she was abandoned as an infant, forging ahead with her presidential campaign under a cloud of controversy as she struggles to prove she has Filipino blood.

Ms Poe flew into Kalibo, one of the main towns on the island of Panay, for a whirlwind tour on Tuesday (Dec 12), posing for selfies with excited fans, meeting the local bishop and doing radio interviews to reach a wider rural audience.

"Part of the reason why I am really going around is to tell the people that I am still very much in the race and I am not giving up," Ms Poe told Reuters before she embarked on her journey to Panay island.

Ms Poe's Dickensian life story has become one of the main narratives in the Philippines presidential election scheduled for May 9. Found in the Jaro Cathedral on Panay in 1968, she was eventually given to a Philippine couple who became prominent in cinema and politics in a country with a long history of political melodramas.

Her adoptive father, the late action movie hero Fernando Poe, would himself make an unsuccessful run for President in 2004, fending off charges that he, too, did not have proper citizenship credentials for the presidency.

The first-term senator, moved to the United States during her university years and spent much of her adult life in Fairfax, Virginia, marrying an American of Philippine origin and working as a school teacher.

The 47-year-old mother of three returned to the Philippines in late 2004 after her adoptive father died and topped the Philippine Senatorial race in 2013, running on his legacy.

But last month, the Commission on Elections disqualified Ms Poe on the grounds that she could not prove she has Filipino blood and failed to meet a 10-year residency requirement. She has appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. "Loyalty to the country does not end with territory. Sometimes you are elsewhere but your heart is really for the country," Ms Poe said in the interview.

To strengthen her case, she said she is awaiting the results of DNA tests involving three people who could be her relatives. "It's an emotional process to go through, especially when I consider my adoptive parents as my parents," she said.

"Although the DNA evidence is not necessarily a requirement of the law it will probably make the process short for us." The Supreme Court will hear arguments next week before making a final judgment on whether she can stay in the election race.

THE UNDERDOG

The controversy does not appear to have dented Ms Poe's popularity among a public known for craving drama and putting more store in personality than policy. She remains in the lead in a December opinion poll for the presidential race.

Mr Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for political and electoral reform, said Ms Poe's decision to stay on the campaign trail pending the court verdict would work in her favour. "In the meantime, she will be an underdog. Filipinos love underdogs," he said.

Ms Poe drew big crowds in Panay, an island in the Philippine archipelago that is home to Boracay Beach, one of the country's most popular tourist destinations.

While she has been travelling on a borrowed private jet, Ms Poe insists her pro-poor campaign is about inclusive growth and leaving no Filipino behind.

Dressed in her trademark white polo shirt, Ms Poe promised to build on retiring President Benigno Aquino's programmes of creating jobs and building infrastructure, which have helped propel one of Asia's fastest-growing economies.

Her support, she says, comes from recognition that she's among a vast number of "new Filipinos" who have spent time overseas and should not be penalised for it. "Your aspiration is really for the country to be better. I think that's exactly what I've gone through - a Filipino who may live elsewhere but who cares just as much for the country," she said.

Remittances from Filipinos working overseas totalled almost US$24 billion (S$35 billion) in 2014, and are one of the country's biggest sources of foreign exchange.

Ms Poe is battling for the presidency with Vice-President Jejomar Binay, tough-talking Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte and former interior minister Manuel Roxas, who is Aquino's hand-picked successor.

Ms Poe says her comparative inexperience is not a disadvantage. "You don't have much baggage with you," she said of her career in public office.