If partial, unofficial poll results are accurate, more than half of Filipino voters have chosen a former dictator’s son as their new president for the next six years.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, scion of the family who’ve become synonymous with lavish excess propped up by corruption, violence and human rights abuses, leads the count following a successful campaign built on disinformation and alliances with key power brokers. This includes running with outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter Sara, who is also poised to win the vice presidency.
Marcos Jr addressed his supporters at his Manila campaign headquarters late Monday night, telling them not to assume victory until the last vote is counted. “But even with the count still underway, I can’t wait to thank all of you. My thanks to all who helped out, to all who joined our cause, for your sacrifices, for all the work, time and talent you gave us.” Outside, a group of his supporters cheered at passing traffic, chanting that their candidate had won.
This closing-in of two autocratic political dynasties and the reality of another Marcos presidency—just 36 years after his father was ousted—has the country’s more liberal voters expressing grief and disbelief at the result of the general election held on Monday.
Particularly shocked are young supporters of Leni Robredo—the outgoing vice president and only woman in the presidential race—who inspired a massive volunteer movement with her platform of fighting corruption and restoring the pandemic-hit economy.
“As the night went on, people started crying. People started freaking out,” said Andi Garfin, an 18-year-old first-time voter, describing the mood at her video conference with her friends as they watched coverage of the results, where Marcos right away led. “I started to dissociate from it. It did not feel real.”
“I felt an overwhelming worry because I couldn’t help but wonder how someone, who could not even attend debates, is leading the polls,” said engineering student Kristelle Morales, referring to Marcos Jr, who dodged most televised debates and interviews save for a few with outlets favorable to him.
“His supporters are known for spreading fake news. In one of his interviews, when he was asked why he wanted to run for president, he said that it was for the sake of clearing his family's name,” Morales told VICE World News. “It was obvious that he does not want to become a president to help the Filipinos. He only wants to save his family's name.”
More than half of the Philippines’ 67.5 million registered voters are aged 18 to 41, mostly too young to have recollections of the peaceful “People Power” revolution in 1986 that ousted the Ferdinand Marcos Sr from power after 21 years of brutal rule.
A huge portion of them went with Marcos Jr, who by Tuesday afternoon had raked in more than 30 million votes. Far behind was Robredo with more than 14 million votes in second place. Other candidates lagged even further, including former boxing champion Manny Pacquiao in third place with less than 4 million votes.
The presidency was a high-stakes race, the imminent threat of a Marcos return to power not lost on those who rallied behind Robredo, those aware of their country’s history. A humanitarian lawyer with a clean record and who delivered much-needed social services especially during the pandemic, Robredo inspired a groundswell of volunteer support that snowballed into what she, her supporters and observers called a people’s movement.
Outgoing Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo delivers a statement on May 10, 2022, at her home in Camarines Norte, Philippines. Photo: Robredo's Office via AP
It catapulted her from being a laggard in opinion surveys last year to being the lone credible challenger to Marcos’ bid by the time the campaign hit full swing in March. Her supporters included an unlikely coalition of activists, rights advocates, universities, religious groups, former military generals, labor groups, businesses, professionals, and a host of A-list celebrities who lent their star power to her jam-packed campaign rallies.
But it proved to be too little too late, with Marcos a clear frontrunner commanding more than half the share of votes in various opinion polls in the run up to election day. Conspiracy theories twisting and rehabilitating the Marcos history have long existed, but they began to inhabit social media as smartphones became more accessible to Filipinos over the past decade.
In recent years, multiple studies have found a disinformation machinery that churns out content that whitewashes the atrocities of Marcos Sr’s regime—thousands tortured and killed, billions of dollars stolen from public coffers—and discredits their opponents, particularly Robredo, who had beat Marcos Jr to the vice presidency in 2016. Unlike the U.S., the Philippines elects presidents and vice presidents separately.
The Marcos narrative feeds on “authoritarian nostalgia” hinged on people’s sepia memories of Marcos Sr’s regime, painting a rosy picture at the expense of facts. It confers to Marcos Jr his father’s achievements but leaves out his crimes.
“Bongbong [Marcos Jr] is not the most charming person. He is not necessarily eloquent. He doesn’t really exude confidence and leadership, and he doesn’t inspire anything really, at least from my perspective,” Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist from the Ateneo de Manila University, told VICE World News.
“But I think there’s a lot to be said about why people see the father in him. That, for me, is the question. Of course the answer to that is disinformation, historical revisionism, and the inadequacy of our education system.”
Critics have panned Marcos Jr’s platform of “unity,” which played to Filipinos’ aversion to confrontation, including in politics. Although the concept seems harmless, Maria Ela Atienza, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, warned of its autocratic undertones.
“It’s dangerous—his very vague notion of unity that’s been on repeat during the campaign,” Atienza told VICE World News. “It’s authoritarian, even totalitarian—that idea of no political colors, every one of us is just plain Filipino. I don’t know if they’re aware of that, but that’s the message. It means you’re not considering the diversity among Filipinos.”
Marcos Jr gaining power would allow him to shield his family from accountability. “They have court cases. They have been convicted [of corruption]. They have not returned a large part of the money they have stolen from the Filipino people. We’re still paying the debts incurred since the [first] Marcos regime,” Atienza said.
In the eyes of many, Marcos Jr also represents continuity with the Duterte administration. Human Rights Watch called on him to address the human rights violations that have plagued the Duterte administration, including his war on drugs, extrajudicial killings, communist-tagging, and the illegal detention of fierce Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima—all of which have earned the outgoing strongman international criticism.
“Once in office, presumptive President Ferdinand Marcos Jr should take immediate and decisive action to improve the human rights situation in the Philippines,” the group’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement on Tuesday. He also urged Marcos Jr to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in investigating Duterte for alleged crimes against humanity committed during his deadly war on drugs, something Marcos Jr earlier said he would not support. A Sara Duterte vice presidency is only likely to shield her father further from legal action.
Despite these calls from international rights groups, those who voted against Marcos Jr doubt the human rights climate will improve under him, given his family legacy. “What does he represent to me? Fear. The past. Unimaginable horror. Hopelessness,” first-time voter Garfin said.
The anxiety of opposition voters is further exacerbated by concern over alleged anomalies and perceived cheating during the polls.
Citing malfunctions and delays in the automated voting process, and what they say is a suspicious pattern in the results, these voters are holding out hope for a last-minute uptick for Robredo, even as they mourn Marcos Jr’s already apparent victory.
“I cannot believe the numbers they are showing us. It does not make sense,” Andi Garfin told VICE World News, referring to viral social media posts questioning the difference of votes between Marcos and Robredo staying consistently at 32 percent overnight, even as results trickled in from different parts of the country.
Robredo referred to such “irregularities” in her first speech after the running vote count indicated her defeat, but told followers not to lose hope or faith in their cause.
“We are not defeated. The most important thing is that we’re not done. We’ve only just begun. A path has opened, and it will not close along with the voting precincts. A movement has been born, and this will not fade with the end of the vote count,” Robredo said in a televised speech before dawn on Tuesday.
Morales, one of the million-strong crowd at Robredo’s final campaign rally in Manila on Saturday, finds a Marcos Jr presidency unacceptable. Although hopeful that questions surrounding the credibility of the election will be resolved, she said she would be “willing to risk her life” if it would take another People Power uprising to protect democracy.
“If history has to repeat itself for us to have good governance, I'm not afraid to join a revolution to fight for the good of our country,” she said.
Garfin, meanwhile, is wary of repeating a history of political uprisings, instead wishing the system worked properly. “Don’t people get tired of protesting in the streets? Yes, I’m willing to fight for what is right, but are we not tired of fighting?”
Many of Robredo’s young supporters are finding themselves disheartened. The high from the campaign did not prepare them for defeat. Trending topics on Philippine Twitter on Tuesday afternoon included the words “depression” and “acceptance.” A volunteer group of psychologists were offering an online counseling session for Robredo supporters on the same evening.
“If there’s a word stronger than despair, then that’s it, but I guess that’s what I’m feeling—despair,” said Garfin, who plans to take up political science when she starts college in a few months. She said her experience with the election has hardened her resolve to become a lawyer.
Acknowledging her privileged background, Garfin says she worries about less privileged Filipinos who would be more vulnerable to possible negative impacts from a second Marcos regime. “What the Philippines is losing is a shot at a better future.”
Looking at the big picture, Atienza, the political scientist, said the movement that has evolved around Robredo is in itself a triumph of democracy, given the bleak background from which it emerged.
“I already have students saying all is lost. No, that’s not true. There are lessons to be learned and there are victories—just not the victories we expected,” she said. Atienza added that the grief of defeat can eventually be harnessed into a sustained movement, perhaps turned into a full-on political party, since Robredo ran as an independent candidate to shed the political baggage from her party, the Liberal Party.
“What we’re seeing right now is very fragile because it revolves around one figure—Leni Robredo. This is where civil society can step in. Let’s sustain the conversations, the vigilance, by creating activities that will keep us conversing with one another,” said sociologist Cornelio on how the democratic movement can survive a Marcos Jr presidency.
“Our potential has already been turned into kinetic energy. We just have to keep it kinetic in the meantime.”
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.