Yet the reason most people in the world are currently aware of the elections in the Philippines has very little to do with geopolitics.
At an election rally on April 12, Rodrigo Duterte, the front-runner in the presidential race, made a crass, shocking joke about rape. My colleagues at Morning Mix covered the remarks, which came when Duterte, the tough-as-nails mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao, was telling a story from a hostage crisis that took place under his watch in 1989.
Inmates in a prison overpowered their guards and took 15 people hostage, including 36-year-old Australian lay minister Jacqueline Hamill. According to eyewitness accounts, she was raped by her captors, slashed in her throat and also was shot in the neck when security forces finally stormed the jail, killing 15 inmates. Hamill died.
Duterte recalled the scene at the time in footage that spread rapidly across the Internet.
"I looked at her face — son of a b---- — what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they lined up," said the presidential candidate. "I was angry because she was raped, that's one thing. … But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste."
In the video of the rally, that punch line — Duterte's cringeworthy gag that he wished he had been the first to rape the Australian missionary — receives a chorus of laughter. But the condemnation since has been intense, with denunciations of Duterte coming from rival candidates, the Australian embassy and women's groups.
"You are a crazy maniac who doesn’t respect women and doesn’t deserve to be president," Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is running against Duterte, said in a statement.
In opinion polls conducted in early April, before he made the rape joke, Duterte, 71, held a seven-point lead over his nearest rival, Sen. Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of a popular film star. Some believe that margin may have narrowed.
After a somewhat bungled and bemused response to the backlash, Duterte offered a full apology Tuesday.
"I apologize to the Filipino people for my recent remarks in a rally. There was no intention of disrespecting our women and those who have been victims of this horrible crime. Sometimes my mouth can get the better of me," he said.
But Duterte went on, burnishing his chops as a law-and-order candidate: "However, I will not apologize for the things I’ve done to protect our people, especially the weak and defenseless, from crime. I know what it can do to the victims and their families. The anguish and pain they cause. The trauma that can’t be erased. I have witnessed these myself numerous times," he added.
He had earlier vowed a "clean government" despite his "dirty" mouth.
Duterte has touted his ability to be tough on crime. He is credited with transforming Davao City from a lawless backwater to a safe, relatively prosperous city. His heavy-handed methods, critics point out, have earned him the sobriquet "the punisher" and "Duterte Harry" and led to allegations that he used death squads to carry out extrajudicial killings.
Duterte declared his intent to hang or drown some 100,000 convicted criminals should he win the May 9 election.
"It's going to be bloody," he quipped about his potential presidency, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
His hard-headed approach has won him a groundswell of popular support, with Filipinos concerned with an upsurge in violence in parts of the country and also fatigued by the Aquino years. Many poor Filipinos have not seen much of a dividend from the country's half-decade of economic stability and growth.
University of the Philippines political science professor Aries Arugay says that many of Duterte's supporters are "true believers" who won't likely change their minds after the recent controversy.
"If you take a look at a strength of support for Duterte you could see that he really has a constituency," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Elections in the Philippines are showy affairs, with rallies often surrounded by an almost carnival-like atmosphere. It's an environment well-suited for politicians with Duterte's brash, if uncouth, charm.
His joking continued Tuesday when reporters asked him about a separate incident in which his daughter was allegedly raped. Duterte joked that she was a "drama queen" before dismissing the question.
"She can’t be raped," he said. "She carries a gun."
Over the years, the presidential candidate has acquired a reputation as a womanizer. Duterte himself admitted to currently having three girlfriends in addition to a common-law wife.
A psychiatric evaluation of Duterte, filed during divorce proceedings with his then-wife in 1998, said his personality was characterized by "gross indifference, insensitivity and self-centeredness," "grandiose sense of self-entitlement and manipulative behaviors" and "pervasive tendency to demean, humiliate others and violate their rights and feelings."