MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Sen. Grace Poe is eligible to run for president in May 9 elections, overturning an elections commission decision to disqualify her and removing a long-hanging legal question over a tightly fought race to lead the Southeast Asian nation.
The justices voted 9-6 in favor of Poe's petitions against the Commission on Elections' decision last December to disqualify her on the grounds that she was not a natural-born citizen and did not have the 10 years of Philippine residency required of presidential candidates, Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te said.
Elections Chairman Andres Bautista said his commission respects the ruling and will assess whether to appeal.
"This victory isn't only mine," a triumphant Poe told hundreds of people who joined an International Women's Day rally by a left-wing group in a downtown Manila square. "This is most of all a victory for the oppressed, a victory for those who are burdened by this system and a victory for women."
Asked by The Associated Press how she felt, Poe replied: "Relieved, but this is only the start, we need to do a lot of things. There is now a big opening for us to start our work."
The decision provided a major boost to the campaign of Poe, who is already leading in popularity polls, and removes a cloud of uncertainty over what has been shaping as a closely contested four-way race to succeed President Benigno Aquino III, whose six-year term ends June 30.
"She will now be the candidate to beat," political analyst Ramon Casiple said, adding that people who were concerned that she may be taken out of the race because of her legal troubles now have a clear choice.
Pulse Asia, an independent polling body, placed Poe in the lead with the support of 26 percent of the respondents in a survey conducted last month of 1,800 people nationwide, followed by Vice President Jejomar Binay, who got 25 percent. Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, whose candidacy has been endorsed by Aquino, and tough-talking Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of southern Davao city each got 21 percent.
The survey had a margin of error of 2 percentage points. Poe had a wider lead in a Pulse Asia poll in January.
Although a political neophyte, the 47-year-old Poe carries a popular family name and has a heart-rending life story in a country where many are swayed more by personalities than policy positions.
The U.S.-educated Poe, a former pre-school teacher, is the adopted daughter of one of the Philippines' most famous movie couples. Her late father, Fernando Poe Jr., was a movie action star who mostly played roles as a defender of the poor in a country where about a fourth of the more than 100 million Filipinos wallow in poverty.
But the Commission on Elections disqualified Poe from running in December, ruling that she was not a natural-born Filipino as required by the constitution because she was abandoned as a baby by her unknown parents at a Roman Catholic church.
Poe, who renounced her Philippine citizenship for about five years to live with her own family in America, also lacked the required 10-year Philippine residency ahead of the May 9 vote, the commission said. That prompted Poe to bring her case to the Supreme Court.
Appearing often in campaign sorties in a white shirt and blue denim pants that many people identify with her father, Poe has run on the same pro-poor platform that her father carried, pledging that under her presidency, "nobody will be left behind."
Aquino's successor will need to grapple with poverty, corruption and Marxist and Muslim insurgencies — persistent problems facing a country that three decades ago toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos through a "people power" revolt.