Being 'Boring' Can Win You Philippine Elections, Says Aquino's Presidential Pick

Mar Roxas

Mar Roxas.

Photographer: Bullit Marquez/AP Photo
  • Ex-Cabinet member Roxas sees growth potential of 6% to 7%
  • Says record of anti-corruption and growth will lure voters

Philippine presidential aspirant Mar Roxas, the candidate of the incumbent Benigno Aquino, predicted that voters so far unexcited by his campaign platform of strengthening growth and containing corruption will ultimately back him in the May election.

“We’re boring, we have no drama -- we simply work and deliver the goods,” Roxas a 58-year-old former cabinet member under Aquino, said in an interview in Makati City in the Philippines Monday night. He pledged to strengthen agriculture, empower local communities to distribute public-investment cash and help private businesses by fighting graft and reducing regulatory burdens.

Speaking days before the government is forecast to announce the slowest annual growth for four years, seen at 5.7 percent, former Senator Roxas said that his platform could see the expansion rate return to the 6 percent to 7 percent pace Aquino achieved in the past. That record helped spur the World Bank in 2013 to label the Philippines as a "rising tiger" -- a big contrast from the decades when it was deemed Asia’s “sick man.”

“Six percent to 7 percent will be attainable,” said Roxas, grandson of a former president. “This year, there would be a bump from all the election activity. But on a sustainable basis, we can approach it beginning 2017, 2018.”

Born wealthy and educated overseas, Roxas in polls has trailed behind Vice President Jejomar Binay, who’s trying to win votes by portraying himself as a champion of the poor and has confronted corruption allegations in the past, and Senator Grace Poe, whose campaign is anchored on the popularity of her late father, an actor who entered politics.

Roxas, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a former investment banker with the New York–based Allen & Co., also served as trade secretary under former presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo. He was elected a senator in 2004 with the highest total recorded.

May’s presidential election is the biggest wild card in the Philippines. Aquino, 55, can’t run again because of the nation’s six-year term limit. At stake is sustaining Aquino’s success in curbing corruption, boosting growth and trimming the budget deficit -- a record that won the country an investment-grade debt rating for the first time. The benchmark stock exchange has vastly outstripped peers since Aquino took office:

Roxas said he will give local governments more autonomy to decide their budgets in a system that rewards efficient spenders. He will review the law to reduce power costs to attract more factories, increase investment in agriculture to reduce wastage while strengthening education and infrastructure to support tourism and outsourcing.

Community Investment

Should he win, Roxas said about 100 billion pesos ($2 billion) can be allocated to communities that will decide what to spend the money on, based on the biggest need -- whether it is potable water, electricity, classrooms or fish-finder equipment on boats that could allow families in coastal villages to grow their earnings.

Also on Roxas’s to-do-list: taking on the traffic and transportation bottlenecks that plague Filipinos’ daily lives. He became his most animated in the interview in explaining how these frustrations are a by-product of the rapid growth that’s been delivered by the outgoing administration.

Construction workers prepare to put up a column for an elevated highway project in Manila.
Construction workers prepare to put up a column for an elevated highway project in Manila.
Photographer: Jay Directo/AFP via Getty Images

Before Aquino took office, Philippine car sales would run about 132,000 a year. That has increased to about 288,000, causing greater congestion in a Metro Manila that hasn’t seen much in the way of road construction. The solution: elevated highways, which are now being built.

China Relations

On foreign policy, Roxas also drew distinction between the current administration and its predecessors, blaming previous policy makers for failing to protect Philippine territory from Chinese encroachment. China has become increasingly assertive in its claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, creating new islands in waters near the Philippines that have the potential to become military outposts.

Roxas said he would continue to follow international law in the territorial dispute with China while enhancing ties with the U.S. and other allies. At the same time, he said he would court China for investment as he would the rest of the world.

Roxas also said the danger of Islamic State terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia bear watching. This month’s attack in Jakarta was "pretty close to home," he said.

The president’s protégé and former interior secretary, Roxas gave up a presidential bid in 2010 to make room for Aquino. This time, he has lagged behind Binay and Poe in all seven public opinion polls by the Social Weather Stations since 2014. He got 21 percent in the latest poll this month, compared with 31 percent for Binay and 24 percent for Poe. In fourth place was Rodrigo Duterte, a crime-busting mayor and self-confessed womanizer, with 20 percent.

“In every campaign, in every romance so to speak, there’s always the tendency to look for something new, fresh," Roxas said when asked about the polls. "But in the end, they will go back to what’s stable and what they know can deliver. And so we’re confident that in the end that is where the electorate will be.”

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