Political Dynasties vs People Power: How two presidential campaigns predict the future of the Philippines

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On Monday, three months of campaigning will come to a close as Filipinos head to the polls to pick the candidates who will lead the nation for the next six years. The problems facing the country’s next set of leaders are enormous: the Philippines is still reeling from the devastation of Covid, as well as ballooning debt and accelerating inflation — all issues magnified by systemic graft, corruption and widespread poverty.

Out of 10 presidential candidates in this year’s race, the two frontrunners are far ahead and facing off in what is sure to be a pivotal point for the future of the Philippines. Surveys show a strong lead for former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, while Leni Robredo, the current vice president and primary opposition candidate, appears to be a distant second in the polls but has seen a huge upswell in public support and volunteer activity late in the race.

While the Philippines has long seen a more active electorate and higher voter turnout compared to its neighbors in the region, many analysts say this year’s election season has been unprecedented.

“For many Filipinos, this is the election of their lifetime. The stakes are high,” says Cleve Arguelles, assistant professorial lecturer at the De La Salle University’s Department of Political Science. “On the one hand, many of our people are still suffering from the losses during the height of the pandemic. We are slowly recovering but there is no assurance it will be less painful.”

Many Filipinos fear that their post-COVID struggles will be magnified if the Marcos’ family returns to power and glory following a Bongbong win. The family was defamed following the toppling of Marcos Sr.’s 21-year authoritarian regime during the 1986 People Power Revolution, which drove the family out of the Malacañang Palace and forced them to flee to Hawaii, but they still managed to get away with an estimated US$10 billion worth of ill-gotten wealth, much of which has not been recovered to this day.

Marcos Jr. topping the polls signifies that the painful lessons of the People Power Revolution appear to have been forgotten a mere 36 years later.

“A Marcos Jr. presidency would indicate that Filipinos demand a new social contract away from the liberal democratic promises of the 1986 People Power Revolution. This may include experimenting with taking the country on, as in Marcos Sr.’s rule, a decidedly authoritarian path. In the past six years under [President] Rodrigo Duterte, the support that his government enjoyed was an experiment on the part of usually democratically ambivalent Filipinos,” Arguelles explains.

Also on Bongbong’s side is President Duterte’s daughter Sara, who is running for vice president. For Sara, who is the incumbent mayor of Davao City in Mindanao, joining forces with Bongbong is seen as not only the missing piece that will secure Marcos Jr.’s votes in the Visayas and Mindanao islands, but also the main signifier that the duo are the anointed successors to Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

“Without a doubt, this is a continuity election. President Rodrigo Duterte, despite the blunders in his pandemic responses as well as attacks to democracy and human rights, is set to end his term as among the most popular of Philippine presidents,” Arguelles explains, adding that surveys show that voters have positively assessed his time in office and continue to support him.

“[Duterte’s] popularity is driving demand, as also shown in polls, for a presidential candidate who can continue his programs and politics. Marcos Jr.-Duterte have clearly positioned themselves as the continuity candidates — their campaign promises center on building on the legacies of [the president’s] government.”

The Marcos machinery: blood ties, Dutertismo and a disinformation machinery

According to Arguelles, Marcos Jr.’s electoral advantage can be summed up in two Ds: disinformation and Dutertismo — Duterte’s brand of populist politics.

Arguelles surmises that the Bongbong Marcos-Sara Duterte tandem benefit from a massive disinformation machinery that has been put into place “as early as six years ago.”

Over the past few years, pro-Marcos and Duterte disinformation campaigns have dominated social media platforms popular among Filipinos. Fact-checking collective Tsek.ph places Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok as the leading sources of online disinformation. Just this week, the US Filipinos for Good Governance uncovered over 100 trolls engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook, spewing pro-Marcos propaganda and falsehoods about Robredo, her programs, and fabricated ties to the communist movement.

READ: After Bongbong Marcos dares critics to ‘show me 1 troll,’ Filipino-American group exposes hundreds of fake news peddlers

This disinformation machine has been effective in convincing a large swathe of voters to vote for Marcos Jr. and Duterte. They’ve successfully peddled false narratives such as portraying the years the country was under martial law as a prosperous era, that the Marcos government was responsible for the Philippines’ golden age of infrastructure, and that the Marcoses have been unfairly treated by the country’s political elites and oligarchs — despite being members of the elite class themselves.

“Their disinformation machinery has also systematically targeted young voters on social media platforms like TikTok. These TikTok disinformation campaigns are designed to rehabilitate the Marcos family image by portraying them as hip and relatable political celebrities while downplaying the family’s role in some of the country’s worst cases of plunder of government funds and human rights abuses. For instance, old videos of then First Lady Imelda Marcos justifying the use of government resources for her personal excesses as just her philosophy of beauty circulate on TikTok,” Arguelles elaborates.

READ: So what was so bad about martial law?

While the deeply entrenched disinformation web has played a massive role in rehabilitating the Marcoses’ once-tainted image, the Marcos campaign has also benefited from President Duterte’s halo effect, despite the latter saying that he would not endorse any presidential candidate.

“He didn’t have to formally endorse Marcos Jr. because he has been campaigning for the family since he assumed the presidency. Since 2016, he has also mobilized state resources to rehabilitate the image of Marcos Sr and the legacies of the Marcos dictatorship,” Arguelles says, citing Duterte’s repeated praise of Marcos Sr.’s rule and his regime’s lasting achievements, as well as the controversial decision to allow the late dictator’s to be buried at the national Cemetery of Heroes — a milestone in the Marcoses’ long road to symbolic redemption.

“So for the past six years, Filipino voters have been exposed to pro-Marcos propaganda on two levels— coming from the very top (the president) and in everyday life (social media). This kind of ecosystem, dominated by state machinery and disinformation machinery, effectively shifted the nature of public conversations and considerations, including for the 2022 elections.”

Arguelles explained that the Marcos Jr.-Duterte dynastic tandem represents the political marriage of some of the most formidable, notorious, and entrenched political elites — including former Presidents Gloria Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, who had been embroiled in their own corruption cases, as well as the Romualdez and Villar clans. Marcos Jr.’s mother, Imelda, hails from the politically influential Romualdezes in the Leyte province, while Manny Villar, former senator and real estate magnate, is currently ranked the richest Filipino.

Arguelles explained that these alliances help concentrate significant political resources that are crucial to the Marcos Jr.-Duterte campaign. “Many of these political dynasties have been in control of their respective provinces since the return of elections in the country. The Marcos and Duterte families are the best examples of this— they have been the dominant political families in Ilocos Norte and Davao, respectively, for so long. Among other resources, these local political bosses deploy proven grassroots election machines which have been tested throughout the years in their own electoral races.”

The Robredo magic: Will volunteerism be enough to carry her to the presidency?

While Marcos Jr. controls formidable financial and political resources, the greatest obstacle to his campaign is the groundswell of organic, grassroots support that has driven the campaign of his closest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo.

The Philippines votes for the president and vice-president posts separately and the Marcos Jr. and Robredo rivalry stems from the 2016 election, in which they faced off in the vice-presidential race. Robredo narrowly defeated Marcos Jr. in that election, despite him having held the frontrunner position in the polls. That led Marcos Jr to file multiple electoral protests over the course of four years until the Supreme Court unanimously junked the case in 2021 after he was unable to provide evidence for his claims of vote fraud.

Robredo’s spotless track record, her background as a lawyer for the marginalized, and the excellent pandemic response she engineered, despite the meager budget for the Office of the Vice President and multiple politicking tactics by Duterte’s allies, have earned her a strong and fervent following among those fed up with traditional dynastic politics and endless post-pandemic struggles.

“The movement for Vice President Leni Robredo represents the highest ideals of our democracy — that of empowering the people to determine the affairs of our society. But because it challenges a tried and tested electoral strategy, the fate of a volunteer-driven election campaign is still unclear. However, if there is someone who can succeed in using a volunteer-driven election strategy, it will be Robredo. She did it in 2016 and it may also send her to Malacañang this year,” Arguelles says.

The political scientist said that the strength of Robredo’s campaign definitely lies in the unprecedented number of volunteers that it has been able to mobilize for the election campaign. Robredo’s spokesman, Barry Gutierrez, pegs their number of volunteers at two million — a clear pushback by the people against the overwhelming machinery of the Marcos Jr. campaign.

“The thousands of volunteers leading the house-to-house campaigns and rallies of Robredo repudiates the role of the usual political dynasties and their machineries in our elections,” Arguelles says.

A glimmer of hope is the consistently high turnout at Robredo’s campaign events, dubbed “grand people’s rallies,” that have seen a broad range of Filipinos from across generations, classes, and genders convene towards a common goal. In Pasig City, some 137,000 Filipinos came out in support of Robredo, a number that was topped by a grand rally in Pasay City that saw over 412,000 flock to the site. Social media is rife with moving stories of Robredo supporters sharing food, car rides, and other acts of kindness that make one hopeful for the possibility of change.

“My encounter with the crowds in the rallies is always inspiring,” Arguelles shared. “How the rallies, for instance, attract broad support from diverse groups of Filipinos — young and old, students and professionals, ARMY and BLINK, rich and poor, straight and queer — you begin to imagine that the class, gender, generational and other divides that characterize Philippine society can be bridged even temporarily.”

“From the firsthand accounts I have read, this is exactly how many Filipinos felt when they joined the 1986 People Power protest against Ferdinand Marcos. After six years of demobilization under Rodrigo Duterte, Filipinos are mobilizing for democracy and good governance again.”

READ: Power to the People: Citizens, not officials, raise Robredo’s and Pangilinan’s hands

Arguelles argues that the ability of everyday Filipinos to mobilize such a strong campaign has been striking. “These ordinary Filipinos have been organizing the rallies, showing up in huge numbers, and volunteering to take care of each other’s needs. All because they have embraced a campaign and a candidate; all because they have been convinced that another Philippines is possible. We have not seen this kind of broad and deep democratic solidarity among Filipinos in past elections.”

Although Marcos Jr. has sustained his lead in the surveys, Arguelles believes that strong voter turnout, as well as shifts among “soft” supporters and undecided voters, could still influence the election’s outcome. “In a survey, we have seen that around 30-35 percent of the voters are still ‘soft voters.’ This means that almost three or four out of 10 voters may still change their vote preferences for president between the survey period and election day.”

“Robredo, as shown in the polls, generally has the most number of ‘hard’ supporters or those unlikely to change their voting preference until election day. If she is able to maintain her core supporters, encourage Marcos Jr.’s soft supporters to switch to her camp, and get the support of the undecided voters, she could still pull off a surprising last-minute victory.”

The path to a Robredo presidency has many obstacles to clear, but it is evidently not an impossible feat. The question is: is there enough time?

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