Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines – Wading through a crowd of supporters, Vice President Leni Robredo moved cautiously as a group of teenagers began to gather around her, hoisting their phone cameras, ready to take selfies. The presidential candidate answered the request of her masked fans as her staff repeatedly reminded the growing crowd to keep their distance due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Other supporters stood by, waving handmade posters and pink banners of Robredo, and shouting his name in unison. Their voices were drowned out by booming live music played by a swaying and twirling dance troupe in native costume as they welcomed the Philippines’ highest representative.
In a typical election year, when candidates woo voters at events across the 7,107-island country, Robredo A Mardi Gras style reception would have been considered tame. But during a pandemic, when community closures and rigid limits on mass gatherings are the new normal, organizers say turnout has exceeded their expectations.
As the campaign season officially kicks off on Tuesday, Robredo and the other candidates have been forced to adjust to an electoral landscape disrupted by COVID-19.
Since the People Power protests of 1986 and the restoration of democracy, elections for President and Vice President have been held every six years, with Filipinos also voting for 12 senators, more than 300 House members and approximately 18,000 local positions – from governors to city council members. — in a circus-like political jamboree that lasts three months.
Trailing in the polls, Robredo is looking to reel in her supporters and secure another victory from behind on May 9, as she did in 2016 when she was elected vice president.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr, whose brutal rule was ended by the 1986 protests, stands against her – and currently, the most popular candidate to replace President Rodrigo Duterte.
After six years of strongman rule under Duterte, who is barred from running for president a second time, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“If Bongbong Marcos wins, it confirms that Duterte’s victory is not just a blip in post-Marcos political history,” said Robin Michael Garcia, director of WR Numero, a polling and analytics firm. Manila-based data company, using Marcos Jr. moniker.
“We know Duterte already has authoritarian tendencies, and I don’t think Bongbong will be any better than Duterte when it comes to political governance,” Garcia told Al Jazeera.
There are approximately 65.74 million registered voters in the country. A presidential candidate only needs to win more votes than any other candidate to win.
“High economic stake”
With an economy plagued by the coronavirus, “the future of the county hangs in the balance,” Hezekiah Concepcion, professor of social sciences at Ateneo de Zamboanga University, told Al Jazeera.
“The new president must be able to lead the recovery of the pandemic-battered economy, which experts say has cost our country an estimated 40 trillion pesos ($776.6 billion),” during of the next four decades, he said.
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According to a report citing the International Labor Organization (ILO), unemployment is also expected to reach 1.1 million this year, 10% higher than pre-pandemic levels. In November, the Philippine Statistics Authority put the number of unemployed at 3.16 million.
Concepcion says that given the situation, the next president must be “inspirational” to unite the country and “smart in choosing experts and technocrats” to address concerns related to the economy, education, health and the pandemic.
But instead of focusing on the economy and the pandemic, many candidates have engaged in behind-the-scenes deals and political maneuvering for months as they seek to succeed Duterte. Duterte himself had run for senator but later dropped out.
Tandem Marcos and Duterte-Carpio
Analysts say Duterte’s political machinery rallied behind Marcos Jr, even though Duterte himself called Marcos Jr a “weak leader”.
Her own daughter, however, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, seems to think otherwise. She declared her support for Marcos Jr and agreed to run as his vice president, cementing their support into a formidable base. At one point, she too had considered running for president.
Even before declaring his presidential candidacy in October, Marcos Jr had leveraged his 4.4 million Facebook followers to spread his message and woo voters through “virtual campaign trailers” and events. of “meet and greet” online.
His campaign also posts brilliantly produced daily vlogs and occasionally hosts Facebook Live chats to compensate for limited in-person gatherings. In one of his videos, however, Marcos Jr says he still prefers the “old-fashioned” campaign, where he can see his supporters and shake hands.
Garcia, of polling firm WR Numero, describes Marcos Jr’s pre-election poll as “unprecedented”.
“If none of the other candidates do anything drastic in the next three months, Bongbong Marcos will be our next president,” he told Al Jazeera.
It doesn’t hurt the Marcos and Duterte-Carpio team that Duterte remains hugely popular despite the economic downturn and the pandemic and the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into his signature war on drugs for the possible “crime against humanity of murder”.
Marcos’ toughest challenger
As vice president, Robredo is considered the Philippines’ leading opposition figure and Marcos Jr.’s toughest challenger.
Robredo and Duterte were sworn in in 2016 but disagree on many issues, including the handling of the pandemic response and the war on drugs, which she called a “failure.”
Presidents and vice presidents are elected separately in the Philippines, often resulting in the election of candidates from rival parties, such as Duterte and Robredo, who are then unable to work together.
On becoming vice president in 2016, Robredo defeated Marcos Jr who later challenged his victory in court. Although the effort failed, his supporters mounted a sustained social media campaign questioning the legitimacy of Robredo’s victory, weighing on his popularity. Recent polls show her trailing Marcos Jr by a wide margin, although her ratings are rising again.
Robredo has tried to rally support from other opposition figures in a bid to eat away at Marcos Jr’s lead, but with little success so far.
These presidential candidates include international boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Senator Panfilo Lacson.
In terms of experience and record, however, no other candidate comes close to Robredo, says Anton Mari Lim, a Mindanao veterinarian and community leader.
He says he supports Robredo because the 2022 race “is a personal fight for the future of my son and the many children in the impoverished communities we serve.
“This is one of those rare times when our choice is not between choosing the lesser evil, but between good and bad governance,” he told Al Jazeera.
In a brief interview with Al Jazeera, Robredo said tackling the pandemic would be her top priority as president, adding that by managing COVID-19, the country could reopen its economy faster.
“There are a lot of gaps in [Duterte] administration’s pandemic response, but it’s not too late yet and we can still fix them,” she said in English and Tagalog.
Marcos Jr faces his own challenges. He continues to push back against questions about his family’s questionable wealth and the slew of allegations that they failed to return billions of dollars to the government.
In 2020, the Philippines has already recovered a total of 174.2 billion Philippine pesos ($3.38 billion) from the Marcos family, according to the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG), whose sole task is to recover public funds lost during the Marcos. diet.
The PCGG estimates that from 2021, some A further 125.9 billion Philippine pesos ($2.45 billion) in “ill-gotten wealth” remains to be recovered from the Marcos.
On top of that, the Marcos family also owes the Philippine government an additional 203 billion Philippine pesos ($3.94 billion) in unpaid inheritance tax, according to retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who leads a group multisector opposing the candidacy of Marcos Jr.
In a media forum, Carpio warned that it might not be possible to recover this money if Marcos Jr becomes president.
Marcos Jr is also the target of motions for disqualification filed with the electoral body, Comelec, following an earlier conviction for his failure to file tax returns for four years in the 1980s.
On several occasions, Marcos Jr has dodged questions about his family wealth and financial connections by refusing to participate in televised debates and forums with other candidates, and instead relying on interviews with friendly members of the media and advertisements to deliver its message of “unity”.
Concepcion, from the Ateneo de Zamboanga University, says the strategy has so far allowed him to stay above the fray and deliver the message he wants to promote.
Robredo, however, questioned Marcos Jr’s message, saying unity is meaningless if there is no justice for those who suffered rights violations during the dictatorship, and if the Marcos family does not return the remaining money they stole from the government.
As the sprint to the finish line begins, Robredo, who is the only female candidate in the presidential race, said during a televised debate on Friday that she was confident of beating Marcos Jr again.
“I have never backed down from any challenge I have faced, and in 2022 the last man standing will always be a woman.”