World

As the Philippines votes for a new president, a political dynasty is back in play

On Monday in the Philippines, more than 67 million registered voters began casting ballots to choose the country's next president, and in doing so decide the country’s next chapter.

Contest has emerged as a 2-way race between the son of a former dictator and the country's vice-president

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For months, the Philippines has been pulsating with the energy of a major election campaign.

It's been a lively scene of one massive rally after another during the race, drawing crowds to events that play out more like concerts or street parties in the archipelago nation.

Supporters of Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. attend a campaign rally in Taguig, in suburban Manila, on April 24. The son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the 64-year-old is polling considerably ahead of his competitors. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday in the Philippines, more than 67 million registered voters began casting ballots to decide the country's next chapter, voting in a new president, vice-president and 12 senators, as well as 300 lower-house legislators and some 18,000 officials, including mayors, governors and local district councillors.

Many see this election as a high-stakes inflection point for the Philippines that will determine how it's governed and how it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of the country is papered with election posters, like this location near a polling center in Manila. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

The outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been a popular but polarizing figure, clamping down on a free press and violating human rights with his signature "war on drugs" policy.

Human Rights Watch estimates that the hardline policy resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people, with about 3,000 coming at the hands of police.

But Duterte's supporters believe he's been effective at imposing discipline on the population and cutting back on crime and corruption.

And in a country with one of the highest poverty rates in the world, fighting poverty with jobs, health care and education has largely been at the centre of every candidate's platform.

Who is the presidential front-runner?

While the candidate list includes 10 people, as the campaign winds down, it has mostly become a two-way race between incumbent Vice-President Leni Robredo and Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., a former senator and son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

The latest public opinion polls put Marcos Jr., 64, comfortably in the lead. His running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is the daughter of the current president.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. speaks to supporters during the proclamation rally for his 2022 presidential bid in Bulacan province, north of Manila, on Feb. 8. Since returning to the Philippines in 1991 from exile after his father's overthrow, Marcos has sought to rebuild his family's image for a new generation, born after the often-brutal dictatorship. (Basilio Sepe/The Associated Press)

The popularity of Marcos is the result of a major rehabilitation of his family name, coming 36 years after Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was ousted by the country's "people power" revolution after years of brutal dictatorship — an era mired with corruption and violence.

"Our political system has really been monopolized and dominated by powerful political families," explained Sheila Coronel, a Filipino investigative journalist and professor at Columbia University in New York.

"Our political system is very undemocratic. I would say there's maybe 2,000-plus families that have a monopoly over local and national political office in a country of over 100 million people."

In his bid to regain public office, Marcos Jr. has had "to rebuild the myth of the Marcos era as the golden age of the Philippines, where there was peace, there was progress or there was prosperity," said Coronel.

"They invested heavily in that, especially in social media," she said. "They've targeted especially younger voters — those below 40, who have no memory of martial law or of the Marcos regime."

Marcos Jr., right, shown with his family at the palace gardens in Manila in December 1977, is the namesake of his father, a dictator overthrown in the country's 1986 'people power' uprising. (Daniel Simon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

During the campaign, Marcos has forgone debates and mainstream media appearances in favour of messaging made for social media platforms, including TikTok, Facebook and YouTube.

"Social media for the 2022 elections has played a huge part in rehabilitating the Marcos brand," said Jonathan Ong, a disinformation researcher and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts.

With public opinion polls suggesting that 56 per cent of voters would elect Marcos, Ong said much of that support is actually for his family's brand, "which has been changed, refined, whitewashed, sanitized by social media."

"This is something that did not happen during campaign season, but has been a project for six, even seven years," he said.

What about his challenger?

Leni Robredo, a former human rights lawyer, has built her campaign around trying to counter the Marcos social media machine — and the name recognition that comes with his political dynasty. 

She and her team take pride in running a grassroots campaign powered by volunteers, some going house to house to talk directly to voters.

While Robredo, 57, is the incumbent vice-president, she has distanced herself from the Duterte administration.

Philippine vice-president and opposition presidential candidate Leni Robredo greets supporters during a campaign rally in Pasay, in suburban Manila, on April 23. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Philippines, the president and vice-president don't have to run as a single ticket and the two ran on different tickets in the 2016 race. When she was elected, she had a separate inauguration from Duterte.

That race was also the first time she faced off against Marcos Jr., and she beat him for the vice-president position.

Robredo's supporters see her candidacy as a turning point, where the Philippines can move away from the Duterte era — when the country often grabbed global headlines for the president's poor record on human rights.

In speeches laced with profanity, Duterte would often brag about ordering the killings of accused drug dealers with no due process. 

Robredo is a former human rights lawyer and staunch liberal who is running a grassroots campaign powered by volunteers, like this woman, wearing a pink gown, as she speaks to a fish vendor during a house-to-house blitz in Quezon City, Philippines, on May 5. (Lisa Marie David/Reuters)

Robredo, on the other hand, has promised to uphold human rights for the country's citizens. 

It's a message that resonates with activist Julie Jamora, who has been organizing overseas Filipino voters in the U.S. She's also the national secretary general for Malaya Movement USA, which has endorsed Robredo.

There are almost two million Filipino voters living abroad. 

"We really have a stake in what is happening in the elections and what will determine the course of the next six years," said Jamora. 

She said the previous six years under Duterte were marked by "massive human rights violations, militarized COVID responses and … the diminishing of democratic spaces."

Who are the other candidates?

Some of the other candidates in the election have made the run-up to the vote an exciting one for Filipinos, including celebrity and world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao. 

Although his numbers show him trailing in the polls, Pacquiao is a household name in the Philippines and around the world. He won a senate seat in the country in 2016.

Philippine senator and boxing icon Manny Pacquiao takes part in a motorcade as he campaigns in Manila for the country's presidency on April 9. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Pacquiao's personal story is a well-known lore: He rose from abject poverty to become one of the richest people in the country.

In interviews and at campaign rallies, Pacquiao has said that he is running to serve the same communities where he started, aiming to lift them out of poverty with jobs, health care and education.

Other high-profile candidates include Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso and Panfilo (Ping) Lacson, a current senator and former police general.

What's at stake? 

The next president of the Philippines will face a long list of issues that could define the country's future for years to come: rebuilding the economy after the pandemic wiped out millions of jobs, charting a foreign policy amidst territorial threats from China and future-proofing against looming crises, like climate change. 

To Coronel, who will be in the Philippines to witness the results come in, this election is about a young democracy that hasn't quite found its footing, noting the vote comes just three decades after the country's presidential palace was stormed to bring down a dictator.

"I was right outside the palace gates when Marcos fled the country. So I want to see this whole arc of this whole story," she said.

"Those [last] 36 years have been years of dysfunction and corruption — people are getting poorer, there's growing inequality," said Coronel. 

"I think this election is about litigating democracy, and whether it's still a meaningful project for Filipinos to support."

WATCH | Marcos leads Philippine polls despite controversial family: 

Marcos leading Philippine polls despite controversial family

3 months ago
Duration 5:06
The son of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos is leading the polls ahead of the Philippine election. The family's controversial history has been sanitized by a social media campaign that has Bong Bong Marcos Jr. leading a colourful slate of candidates, which doesn't include Rodrigo Duterte who's no longer allowed to run.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kris Reyes

Foreign correspondent

Kris Reyes CBC’s correspondent based in New York. She is a multimedia journalist with more than 15 years of experience in broadcast and digital newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada, as a host, producer, anchor and reporter.

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