Why It Matters

Raucous start to presidential campaign signals bumpy ride ahead for Philippines

The Philippines looks to be in for a wild and unpredictable ride in the months and years to come, going by the way campaigning for this May's presidential election has begun.

The five candidates last week got off to a raucous start of a three-month campaign in which all manner of chicanery is anticipated, with the race probably ending in a dead heat. In all likelihood, the next president will win by the slimmest of margins.

The result will be that he - or she - may not have as strong a mandate as the incumbent, Mr Benigno Aquino. The next president may have to govern by consensus and compromise. He may not be able to pursue tough policies like Mr Aquino's crackdown on bureaucratic corruption or push for reforms.

That means an uncertain future for this nation of over 100 million, with possible derailment of the growth - averaging 6 per cent - that has taken place through much of Mr Aquino's five years in office.

Worryingly for the rest of South-east Asia, a weak president is unlikely to dive quickly into an issue that causes strong emotions in a largely Catholic population: pursuing lasting peace in the restive southern island of Mindanao by giving the Muslims who make up 30 per cent of the population there their own autonomous region.

Unrest in Mindanao means the influence of the Middle East terror group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may spread faster across the region. Already, Mindanao is a breeding ground for the region's militants.

Ironically, one silver lining is that a change in leadership offers an opportunity for Manila and Beijing to reboot relations rocked by Mr Aquino's dogged, often provocative, pursuit of the country's claims to territory in the South China Sea that overlap with China's. All leading candidates have said they will pursue constructive talks with China.

That, at least, is something to look forward to in a post-Aquino era.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Philippine polls: Uncertain times'. Print Edition | Subscribe