“Come on, let’s win this now,” Leni Robredo, the current vice president of the Philippines, capped off her speech on Tuesday evening as she formally launched her campaign to become the country’s next president in a general election in May. The crowd at the plaza of her hometown Naga City broke into hearty applause—a surprisingly numerous throng in pink face masks sticking their necks out in a yet-unabated coronavirus pandemic.
“Let’s expect the fight to get tougher. I am not afraid. I am not nervous,” said the only woman presidential candidate, acknowledging that she is, again, an underdog in the race. But similar to her come-from-behind win in 2016, Robredo has already gained much ground from having been the laggard in the earliest opinion surveys in mid-2021, and she is now the second top choice of survey respondents.
Currently at number one, and significantly far ahead, is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. That he seems poised to win the presidency has many outsiders baffled. His deceased namesake father and former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, after all, holds the Guinness World Record for the “greatest robbery of a government,” having run off with an estimated $5 to $10 billion when a peaceful uprising drove him into exile in 1986. This, after a two-decade rule marred by thousands of extrajudicial killings, tortures and disappearances of dissidents and activists. Inside the world’s largest indoor stadium, the 55,000-seater Philippine Arena just outside the capital Manila, cheers of Marcos Jr’s supporters rumbled at his campaign launch, which took place at the same time as Robredo’s. Tuesday marked the start of the official campaign period in the Philippines, a country of 110 million, giving the candidates 90 days to woo the country’s 65 million registered voters.
The upcoming presidential polls are pivotal for the Philippines, which has seen dismal infection caseloads and economic recession during the pandemic, and reeled from back-to-back natural disasters every year. President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has been criticized for its inept pandemic response marred by alleged corruption, and for undermining the rule of law and basic rights and freedoms in his shock-and-awe approach to governance. A win for Marcos could see the country slide further into authoritarian rule, while Robredo vows clean, sensible governance to undo the damage done by Duterte, should she become president.
Poll managers expected the pandemic to confine campaigns to the media and the internet, but the turnout at the kick-off rallies indicate there will be robust on-ground action.
“Unity has become my advocacy because of my firm belief that unity is the first step out of this crisis we’re in,” said Marcos Jr, who has been deflecting questions about his family background with conciliatory platitudes about breaking with the past. He has skipped televised interviews and debates with presidential bets twice, sticking to opportunities where he has more control of the messaging. “We don’t pick fights. We’re not looking for trouble. All we want is to have decent lives for ourselves, our families and our country.”
Looking and sounding a lot like his father, down to his declamatory manner and theatrical gesticulations, Marcos Jr has been dazzling Filipinos with a rosy retelling of his father’s regime, bolstered by a pervasive and prolific online machinery purveying historical revisionism and even plain fictitious content to fuel the Marcos myth, such as rumors of outrageous gold reserves the family would dispense among Filipinos once they are restored to power. Marcos Jr has denied the gold’s existence, while Twitter recently suspended some 300 accounts associated with his support base that had been spreading such disinformation. The strategy has been largely effective, especially with some 70 million Filipinos on Facebook, earning the country the moniker of social media capital of the world.
But Marcos Jr gets a further boost from the Duterte camp. Running for vice president in tandem with Marcos Jr is Sara Duterte-Carpio, the mayor of Davao City and the daughter of the still hugely popular Rodrigo Duterte. The Marcos family’s generous financial support for Duterte’s 2016 campaign is an open secret let slip by Duterte himself, although the family denies it. Now, Marcos Jr is riding on Duterte-Carpio’s inherited popularity.
“I’m always asked, ‘Why BBM (Bongbong Marcos)? That’s because I believe in his capability to govern as president,” Duterte-Carpio, who is also leading in the vice presidential polls, told the audience, citing Marcos Jr’s experience as governor of his home province and his turns as a lawmaker.
But Marcos Jr had been in this position with Robredo before. In 2016, he was the top contender for the vice presidency in all the pre-election surveys, until he wasn’t. Robredo surged in popularity at the tail end of the campaign, and she beat Marcos Jr by a rather narrow 263,473 votes. Marcos Jr protested the result, only for Robredo to be affirmed the winner. His camp insists he was “robbed” of the post.
At her rally, Robredo detailed her platforms—recovery from the pandemic, sensible programs for the poor, mechanisms to employ the jobless, support for small businesses, social justice for ordinary people, and—her battlecry—honest governance to supplant the prevailing kleptocracy. Marcos Jr, meanwhile, has stuck to generalities about lifting the country out of poverty and crises exacerbated by the pandemic.
Robredo took a subtle swipe at Marcos Jr’s propaganda: “Those who’ve been forced to entrust their future to golden lies, will come to know that the real gold lies in the heart of every Filipino who is willing to help out.”
The biggest item in Robredo’s resumé is her performance as vice president. By law only required to be a ready spare tire for the president, Robredo mounted successful anti-poverty and pandemic response programs despite her office’s meager funds. Her office, too, is one of the very few government agencies that have consistently scored the highest financial accountability ratings from state auditors. Before politics, Robredo was a pro-bono lawyer for rural folk. She was catapulted into national politics after her husband, at the time the interior secretary, died in a plane crash in 2012.
But Robredo’s own political affiliations have weighed down on her prospects—she is a member of the Liberal Party closely associated with the Aquino family—of which has borne two former presidents—and the nemesis of the Marcoses. To shake off that baggage, she is running as an independent candidate, and traded her party’s trademark color yellow for pink, now her campaign color.
Robredo has since embraced a decidedly feminine branding, presenting herself as a willing mother to the nation battered by an erratic, negligent “father”, as Rodrigo Duterte is referred to by his supporters, who nears the end of his term hounded by allegations of massive corruption during the pandemic, and with a looming International Criminal Court investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in his war on drugs.
Of the six contenders for the presidency, only Robredo and the labor-proletarian Leody de Guzman have stated clear opposition to the Marcoses regaining power. The rest—Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso, Senator Panfilo Lacson, and former boxing champion and Senator Manny Pacquiao—have all played it safe, not wanting to miss out on possible votes from the Marcos-Duterte support base. Domagoso, Lacson, Pacquiao and De Guzman lag behind Marcos Jr and Robredo in pre-election surveys.
Online, the sentiment between Marcos Jr and Robredo are as divisive as ever, hinting at a repeat of their close race six years ago.
“This is the president we all deserve,” said TikTok user pinkyhues in a caption to a recent video of Robredo persevering in an interview despite technical difficulties. “Tenacious, resourceful, and always finds a way—that’s my president,” commented user stoplukelisten.
“For the longest time, they’ve been destroying the Marcoses, so it’s history itself that will restore the Marcoses, wake up, wake up,” TikTok user renelogtorres commented on a video of a Marcos Jr motorcade. “Bring back Marcos,” said another user Ronald Quinday Galla.
It is this sentiment that Marcos Jr continues to ride on. At his rally, Marcos Jr stuck to his message, referencing his father’s heyday and striking a nationalistic chord. “We will take our beloved Philippines not to where it was before but rather make it renowned, so we can face the world and once again say, shout to all of them that ‘I am a Filipino, head held high before anyone.’”
The odds remain stacked against Robredo, but she set a tone of confidence in her campaign, largely fuelled by a groundswell of volunteer support rarely seen in Philippine politics. “I have full confidence in every Filipino,” she said.
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