Many years ago, a baby was abandoned in a church but today she has consolidated her position as front-runner to become next Philippine president on Tuesday when a tribunal rejected a petition that sought to disqualify her because she was not a Philippine citizen. 

Senator Grace Poe, 47, a former pre-school teacher in the United States, has dominated recent independent opinion polls ahead of elections in May.

Poe was adopted by a popular movie star couple but her election as a senator was challenged by a losing opposition candidate who queried her citizenship, since her natural parents were unknown.

The tribunal, comprising six senators and three judges, voted 5-4 to uphold her status as a natural-born citizen.

Poe faces four other petitions in the election commission that have been filed to stop her running for president next May, but the tribunal’s ruling appears to set a precedent.

“From the bottom of my heart, I wish to thank everyone who chose justice and upheld the rights of voters and abandoned children,” Poe told reporters.

While Poe renounced her citizenship in 2001 to reside in the US with her husband, she later returned and became a dual Philippine-US citizen.

“Their affirmation of my natural-born status upholds the right of all foundlings in the country to the entitlements, services and protection they deserve as full citizens of the country,” Poe said on her Facebook page.

Being a natural-born Philippine citizen is a legal requirement for both senators and the president. The decision by the Senate Electoral Tribunal- a panel of six senators and three Supreme Court justices — deals only with her legislative post. The parties have 10 days to request a reconsideration of the case. Defeated senatorial candidate Rizalito David filed the Senate complaint.

Poe still faces a similar complaint before the Commission on Elections that seeks to disqualify her from running for president.

The nationality flap is reminiscent of the allegations by members of the so-called movement in the US who accused US President Barack Obama of not being a natural-born American, a requirement for the presidency.

Despite being a first-term senator, Poe is well known in the Philippines because of her famous adoptive father. The elder Poe also entered politics and faced similar questions over his citizenship. He was defeated by Gloria Arroyo in the 2004 presidential race and died later that year.

Poe led in separate public opinion polls conducted by Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia Research Inc. in September. Her candidacy threatens to siphon off support for President Benigno Aquino’s favoured candidate, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.

Poe, an independent, was part of Aquino’s coalition when she was elected to the Senate in a 2013 landslide. She turned down an offer to run with Roxas as his vice-presidential candidate in the May elections. She rejected a similar offer from Vice President and United Nationalist Alliance leader Jejomar Binay, another presidential aspirant.