If you think the Republican presidential field is crowded, spare a moment for the Philippines. A record 130 candidates have filed to become president in 2016.
A colorful cast turned out to register for the race late last month at the election commission headquarters in Manila. There were dragon dancers, and a man dressed as the hero of a recent blockbuster — Heneral Luna, a chest-thumping, jingoistic war movie that’s landed right in the public’s wheelhouse, given the hysteria over China’s reclamation projects in the South China Sea.
One of the 130 candidates who filed, a newspaper vendor, promises to make every Filipino a millionaire within five years. Another says he was the former flight engineer for Osama bin Laden.
And then there’s the guy who wants to legalize the four seasons in order to get rid of just the dry and rainy seasons. Arturo Pacheco Reyes also wants Filipinos to embrace the American dream — and he means all of it.
“I’d like to make the Philippines one of the greatest nations on Earth — through U.S. statehood,” he says. “The 51st state of the United States of America.”
Most of those who filed ultimately will have their bids rejected by the elections commission — they’re what the media here calls “nuisance candidates.” But the reason so many candidates have filed this time is the plight of the masses here, says Malou Tiquia, head of political consulting firm Publicus Asia. They want their voices heard — however briefly.
“Most of them are poor,” she says. “They don’t have the wherewithal to launch a nationwide campaign. But the problems they are saying have not been solved — corruption, poverty, employment, jobs, those are not new issues — so it is also a reflection of the inability of leaders to solve some age-old problems we have in this country.”
These are problems exacerbated by the dynastic nature of Filipino politics, where the established economic elite has created political dynasties that put the Bush and Clinton clans to shame. More than 70 percent of members of Congress have family members who serve there, too.
The influence of these families extends everywhere — particularly in local government, Tiquia says.
“Families really control several municipalities, several districts, the province,” she says. “You don’t have to have an accomplishment — you just have to have the right name.”
The current president, Benigno Aquino, has the right name: His mother, Corazon Aquino, was president before him, and her extended family is one of the country’s wealthiest.
Another of the frontrunners in the current presidential campaign is the adopted daughter of a former film star.
The Marcos name still works, too. The former dictator’s son, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — or “Bongbong,” as he’s known here — is running for vice president. His mother, Imelda, of the notorious shoe collection, is looking for another term in Congress.
In other words, Tiquia says, nothing’s going to change anytime soon.
“I think you need a strong leader to tell the oligarchs, ‘C’mon, it’s time that … you guys do something for the country.’ Hopefully, we can find one,” Tiquia says, adding that the last time the Philippines had such a leader was Ferdinand Marcos — which didn’t end so well.
Boxer Manny Pacquiao may be the people’s choice next time around; his rags-to-riches story resonates with the public. But they’ll have to wait — in this election, Rep. Pacquiao is looking to move up a political weight class, to senator, as a possible stepping stone toward the presidency.
He’s definitely a contender, says Tiquia — and might have been a lock, if he’d beaten Floyd Mayweather back in May.
He’ll have six more years to figure that out.