It was still dark when Maui Mauricio, a video producer in Manila, Philippines, arrived at the driveway of a mall where the government was registering voters for next year’s elections. He made sure to be there by 4 a.m. because when he came at 7 a.m. the previous day, the line was already so long that he didn’t make the cut.
“I’ve always been an intrinsically politically neutral guy, but the past few years have changed that,” Mauricio, who at 38 was registering to vote for the first time, told VICE World News. “Who are we kidding? Our society is pretty fucked.”
It’s the final month of voter registration for the May 2022 polls, and it’s shaping up to be an exciting contest, with the likes of boxing icon Manny Pacquiao and former matinee idol Francisco Moreno running for president.
At least 63 million Filipinos have registered to vote so far, and even more are turning up in droves at sign-up centers in malls and public halls amid the country’s worst wave of COVID-19 infections yet. Despite the risks posed by the pandemic, the lines and wait times are longer than previous years, according to a poll watchdog.
The sign-up rate, currently at 85 percent of eligible voters, has exceeded those from previous polls. Observers have attributed the enthusiasm to frustration with the government’s handling of the pandemic as well as to the appeal of celebrity candidates.
Crucially, the country will be electing a new president, who could either scrap or continue the controversial policies of the current leader Rodrigo Duterte, such as the “war on drugs” that has killed at least 6,000 people according to official numbers, and his erratic response to the pandemic.
On social media, many Filipinos are urging one another to sign up for the polls, with hashtags that translate to “Get registered” and “Make sure to vote.” Celebrities have posted photos and videos of themselves lining up along with everybody else, some before dawn like Mauricio.
Actor Barbie Forteza posted a photo of herself slumped on a mall’s driveway, the caption saying she started in line at 4 a.m. Maris Racal, a singer-songwriter, waited in line two days in a row (she picked the wrong district the first time) starting at 2:30 a.m. She urged her nearly 5 million followers on TikTok to sign up, too.
“I know how frustrating what’s happening right now [is] and it seems that we can’t do anything. Register to vote. Your vote is a small step that can lead to big changes,” actor Miles Ocampo said on Instagram, where she has 3.6 million followers.
With its daily COVID-19 caseload averaging over 14,000 over the past week, the Philippines is struggling to contain the pandemic. Although this third wave of infections driven by the virus’ delta variant appears to be on the wane, the figure still far exceeds the daily average of just roughly 2,000 cases from about a year ago. The government’s response has been dogged by a short supply of vaccines, incoherent policies and alleged corruption.
In this climate, the economy went into recession, and its gross domestic product fell by 9.5 percent in 2020. Some 3.8 million working-age Filipinos were jobless as of August 31. Last week, Bloomberg ranked the Philippines last among 53 countries in terms of their response to the health crisis, saying it is the “worst place to be” in the pandemic.
“We’re living in the dark ages. Now is the dark ages,” Mauricio said of the reason he’s decided to vote this time.
Joseph Amos Francia, a Filipino taking a master’s degree in innovation at the University of Queensland in Australia, drove an hour to a pop-up registration site in Brisbane to sign up. Absentee voting is available to the several million Filipinos currently outside the Philippines.
“I hate to say that the stakes are higher because they are always high, but yes, they are kinda higher now because we’ve just gone through a dark age, essentially, in terms of governance,” Francia told VICE World News.
Hong Kong’s sizable Filipino community is turning up in droves to register, too. A blogger who goes by “Editha in Hong Kong” posted a Facebook video of the voters’ line at the local consulate that spilled into the adjoining pedestrian overpass running across two major thoroughfares. Other videos showed halls packed with Filipinos waiting for their turn at sign-up booths.
But not all of them are doing it out of frustration with the government.
“Are they doing it out of anger over how the government is handling the pandemic? That could be the case for many people. But we also need to realize that they could very well be inspired by the names that are cropping up now,” Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist with the Ateneo de Manila University, told VICE World News.
Besides Pacquiao and Moreno, others expected to run for the top posts are Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of a deceased dictator who’s still got a cult following; Leni Robredo, the current vice president and opposition leader; Panfilo Lacson, a senator and former police chief; and Sara Duterte, the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In past elections, politicians’ middlemen have been known to slip cash enough for a week’s meals into voters’ hands in exchange for their votes. “It's a motivation to register, at least in some communities where vote-buying is rampant,” Cornelio said.
Others could be registering for fear of missing out on social welfare aid. “Some local government units require voter registration for their constituents to access aid, and that is wrong, yet some of them go out and say [that],” said Eric Alvia, secretary general of the National Movement for Free Elections, an independent poll watchdog.
Whatever the people’s reasons, the long lines prove the Philippines remains a robust democracy, Alvia said. “This is an indication of the interest of people to exercise their right to vote because they personally felt the inconvenience of having leaders who did not deliver during the pandemic,” he told VICE World News.
For Francia, the effort to register is a “recognition that a dark age has just happened, and we need to address it as soon as possible through better leaders.”
Mauricio ended up waiting 10 hours in line until he received his voter’s card. He knew he risked catching the virus by being around so many people for that long.
“I think it was worth it,” he said. “We’re fucking fed up.”