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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Philippine Presidential Election

May 9, 2016

Millions of Filipinos have been to the polls to choose their country's next president, and vote-counting is now underway.

The frontrunner is an outspoken candidate who has pledged to combat crime and corruption.

But the outcome is unclear, due to the large number of people who had yet to declare their intentions in the run-up to the vote.

About 54 million people are registered to vote, and they spent Monday lining up at tens of thousands of polling stations across the country's many islands.

Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of the southern city of Davao, has been the powerhouse in this election.

His single-issue campaign, focused on crime and corruption, has awoken impoverished Filipinos who feel left behind by the country's economic growth.

Senator Grace Poe, who is also popular among the poor, and Manuel Roxas, outgoing President Aquino’s own choice as successor, are reportedly close behind Duterte.

Then, we have Vice President and former human rights lawyer Jejomar Binay from one of the opposition parties.

Elections in the Philippines are known for being tough fights. There are heated wars of words and sometimes violence takes place. But all camps seemed to be united on one thing: they're all talking about the economy.

The time when the country was called the "sick man of Asia" is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Modern high-rise buildings are mushrooming in one business district. The streets are impeccably clean. The country's economy is now growing as fast as its neighbors.

"I think in terms of continuity, I see important element in terms of choosing the next leader," one local resident says.

"We feel that relationship of the presidency with different countries is important in order to sustain business here in Manila," says another.

But the country's recent economic growth has widened disparity between the rich and the poor. We see signs of that problem in various locations in the city. Almost one-third of the population is believed to be living under the poverty line.

This is one of the poorest areas of Manila. Children sorting through rubbish in the streets is another sign that the wealth is hardly trickling down to people most in need.

Rosita Robella struggles to maintain the lives of her family at a food stall. Her husband and son are unemployed. At age 63, she works from 3 o'clock in the morning to 9 o'clock at night, and earns about $7 dollars a day.

Her most pressing concern is crime. Last December, she was robbed when she was making a purchase alone in the early morning.

"When I was going to the market, they get my money. They show me the knife, and then they got my money here in the pocket," she says. "We need change, especially in dealing with criminals."

Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao in Mindanao, is riding the wave of the people's desire for a strong president.

The final campaign gathering for the candidate Mr. Duterte saw a massive turnout, to hear his final campaign speech.

"All of you who are into drugs. I will really kill you! I have no patience for that. I have no middle ground there," Duterte told the crowd.

With his inflammatory remarks and outspoken contempt for human rights, some critics are calling him the "Donald Trump of the Philippines."

But his supporters don't seem concerned.

"Everyone has a bad side!" says one man in the crowd at the campaign event.

Richard Heydarian is a political scientist who has been watching the election closely.

Asked why the message of change is resonating even though the Filipino economy is growing quickly, Heydarian believes one reason is wealth distribution.

"The growth is not trickling down," he says. "Even for those who benefit from the economy, people of the middle classes, upper middle classes, there is a gap between their explosion of expectations and the gradual growth."

And Heydarian argues that Duterte's supporters aren't fazed by his inflammatory remarks because of his experience and knack for one-liners.

"Similar to Donald Trump, he has the skill for bumper sticker statement," Heydarian says. "The other thing is that, I think Donald Trump is a reality show star, Duerte has the experience in Davao city, he was also congressman and Mayor. He has decades of experience in one of the toughest places in the Philippines."

In addition to the domestic issues of the economy and crime, voters have been listening carefully to what the candidates have been saying about the Philippines' foreign relations, particularly on how to deal with China's aggressive policies in the South China Sea.


Contrasting Approaches
Aileen Intia

Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has been the frontrunner in the final stages of the campaign, gaining support for his no-nonsense approach.

"There are guys who enjoy good lives with dirty money. We have to stop the scum!" he has said.

Duterte dramatically improved security in Davao by expanding police powers. Many voters hope he will apply equally strong leadership to tackle national security and other issues left unresolved by successive administrations.

"I will weed out crime, rampant drug use and corruption entirely within 6 years. Everyone come together, vote for me, and make me your next president!" he told a crowd of supporters.

Meanwhile, independent senator Grace Poe plays up her perceived clean image. Wearing her signature white shirt, she highlights the fact that she's free from corruption -- a long-standing problem in the Philippines.

"I will put an end to widespread corruption. I will not betray your trust," she has said on the campaign trail.

Poe enjoys support from across the spectrum of voters, most of whom hope she will be able to change the old ways of doing politics.

"Poe is sincere. I believe she will eliminate corruption," says one of her supporters.

As a baby, Poe was abandoned. She was found in front of a church.

Philippine movie star Fernando Poe Junior adopted her when she was 5 years old. And his popularity helped her in the campaign.

"I will devote myself to the presidency!" Poe said in a campaign speech.

Manuel Roxas, backed by sitting President Benigno Aquino, and Vice President Jejomar Binay, an opposition leader, are facing an uphill battle, as many voters have their sights set on change.

The subject of China came up in the final TV debate. Manila and Beijing are embroiled in an ongoing territorial row in the South China Sea.

All the candidates agreed that the Philippines should not make concessions to China in the dispute. But they took different approaches in how they would deal with the problem.

Poe and Roxas pledged to continue the current government's policy. That involves protesting to China, while strengthening ties with the United States and other nations.

Duterte and Binay want to seek closer ties with China through dialogue, in the hope of winning economic assistance.

In addition to the maritime dispute, the Philippines faces other crucial challenges.

The international community is watching closely, to see who will take the helm of the country.


NHK World's Manila bureau's Aileen Intia joined anchor Sho Beppu in Manila.

Beppu: How do people in the Philippines see China's moves in the South China Sea?

Intia: The question of how to deal with China is naturally a topic of great interest in this country. The media are reporting in detail about China's military buildup in the disputed territories. The government has filed at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China's actions and the court is expected to reach a decision soon. I would say that people in general have mixed feelings about China.

Beppu: In which way?

Intia: Some don't necessarily have a positive perception of China. But on other hand, some people stress that China is an important economic power in the region and feel that the Philippines should not have antagonistic relations with Beijing.

Beppu: How could the election results affect how the Philippines deals with China?

Intia: The election results could change the Philippines' relations with the US and Japan. Outgoing President Benigno Aquino has been deepening ties with these 2 countries in order to counter China's aggressive moves. As we saw in the report, if candidates such as Roxas and Poe win, this policy will likely continue.

However, if candidates such as Binay or Duterte win, it will be another story. For example, Duterte is hinting that he is ready to hold direct talks with China on the issue of the South China Sea on condition that China helps build infrastructure such as trains and roads. This is because he is seen as wanting to quickly show economic achievements -- and he knows he needs China to do this.