Risk outlook in the Philippines’ presidential election

Risk outlook in the Philippines’ presidential election

On May 9th, the Philippines will go to the polls to select a new president. What are the key prospects and risks for investors in the upcoming presidential election.

The Philippine general elections, scheduled for this May, are fast approaching. Four candidates are in a tight race for the presidency: Grace Poe, a first-term celebrity senator; Jejomar Binay, the outgoing vice-president; Mar Roxas, incumbent President Aquino’s chosen successor; and Rodrigo Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City.

Investors and businesses with interests in the Philippines are following this presidential race closely, as the Philippines remains one of the fastest growing Asian economies. It is worth reviewing some of the opportunities and risks presented by the upcoming election.

Voter support for presidential candidates in the Philippines

Voter support for key presidential candidates. Source: Pulse Asia

Regardless of which candidate is elected, investors face some uncertainty. There is no ironclad guarantee that candidates will follow through on their campaign promises, honor the government’s contracts, or continue President Aquino’s so far effective economic policies and anti-corruption measures.

Nevertheless, investors should find comfort in the fact that all of the presidential candidates have pledged to uphold the core elements of Aquino’s policies. Each candidate supports substantial investment in infrastructure – better roads, powerlines, and ports – which are vital to attracting new investment. They also pledges to continue Aquino’s anti-corruption drive, a positive development for many investors.

Ideology and experience

The candidates differ in many other ways that may have bearing on political risk, however. In terms of general orientation and political philosophy, Poe and Roxas are both market-friendly liberals, similar to President Aquino, making them a safe bet for investors looking for continuity.

Binay, on the other hand, is a committed populist, distinguishing himself as a candidate who will care for the poor and reduce economic inequality. Duterte, meanwhile is a third-way candidate who has made draconian anti-crime measures the centerpiece of his campaign. These ideologies would represent a sharper departure from Aquino’s liberalism, and create risks for investors hoping for continuity.

The candidates also vary in terms of their experience governing. Binay and Roxas have the most experience in national government, having both held senior positions in the executive branch. Duterte has a long track record in local politics, but little experience dealing with economic issues. Poe has the least experience as a first-time senator. Both Poe and Duterte’s lack of experience means that they could struggle to adjust to the presidency and governance could suffer, creating another set of risks for investors.

Economic policy

On trade policy, Poe stands head and shoulders above her competitors, pledging to join key trade blocs like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and craft new bilateral free trade agreements with partners. In doing so, Poe will create new opportunities for businesses looking to access the Filipino market and lower costs for Filipino importers, all while improving the country’s overall economic prospects.

The other candidates are less promising. Binay has not taken a clear stance on trade, but his populist tendencies may prejudice him against broader trade agreements. Roxas, despite his patron Aquino’s support for Filipino membership in the TPP, has expressed reticence to join the trade bloc – and to engage in new trade agreements more broadly. Duterte, meanwhile, has not taken a clear stance on trade.

All the candidates have pledged to streamline approvals for new investment, reducing red tape and bureaucratic hurdles. This is a positive sign for investors, as the Philippines remain an exceptionally difficult place to conduct business.

Poe, Binay, and Duterte want to go further, amending the Philippines’ constitution to allow more foreign ownership of property and certain industries. An easing of constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership could prove a boon for companies looking to deepen their involvement in key sectors in the Philippine economy.  Roxas, however, is less enthusiastic, arguing that these amendments are a secondary concern.

The candidates are split on tax policy. Poe and Binay both have pledged to cut the corporate tax rate to make the Philippines more competitive, and to cut income taxes on low income earners to help alleviate poverty and stimulate consumption. Corporate taxes in the Philippines are the highest in the region, and a reduction would make the Philippines a more attractive location to set up businesses.

Roxas and Duterte are less likely to reform taxes in ways that could benefit investors. Roxas has stated that he is hesitant to cut taxes and reduce government revenue. Duterte initially favored reducing income taxes on the poor but later backtracked, saying he would not want to cut any revenue that he might need for government programs.

A positive outlook

Poe’s candidacy suggests the best prospects for investors at this point in the race. She combines a market-friendly, liberal outlook with a healthy support for trade liberalization and much-needed tax and constitutional reform. Similarly, while Roxas is less friendly toward trade and corporate tax reductions, he is nevertheless dedicated to many of the policies that helped foster steady growth under Aquino.

Binay’s candidacy creates some risks given his populist bent and alleged corruption. Investors should not, however, overestimate the extent to which he would deviate from established policy and undermine their interests. Binay has extensive experience in government, and has pledged to continue anti-corruption measures and make tax rates more competitive.

Duterte’s candidacy may carry with it the greatest risks for investors viz. his ambiguous economic platform, opposition to contractualization, and his acknowledged ties to extrajudicial vigilante death squads that killed over one thousand people in Davao City.

Overall, however, as investors look to the elections in May they should be cautious but optimistic. The candidates’ commitment to continue Aquino’s anti-corruption drive will likely improve the quality of governance and foster a more competitive and transparent business environment. Similarly, the candidates’ pledges to improve infrastructure and reduce bureaucratic red  tape will brighten the prospects for investors looking to invest in the growing Filipino manufacturing and construction sectors.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Erik French

Erik French is a PhD Candidate at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, a supervisor at Wikistrat Inc., and a former Sasakawa Peace Foundation fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS. His research focuses on security, politics, and economics in East Asia.