The high stakes of the Philippines' presidential elections

The Marcos family and its allies are set to dominate top offices of government but first-time voters could be won over by the 'pink wave'

Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lipa last month. Reuters

On Monday, May 9, the Philippines will once again go to the polls to elect its next leaders. With 67.5 million eligible voters, and 18 thousand elected positions up for grabs, the upcoming elections mark one of the biggest democratic events anywhere in the world. Candidates will not only be vying for local positions, including almost 1500 mayoral and almost 12 thousand local council posts, but also nationally-contested positions, including the Senate, the Vice-Presidency as well as the highest office of the land, namely the presidency.

Unlike in America, a former coloniser after which the Philippine political system was patterned, the top two offices are contested separately. Latest authoritative surveys suggest that former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and presidential daughter Sara Duterte are favourites to occupy the offices of president and vice-president, respectively. Opposition leader and current Vice-President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, however, remains confident that she can yet again pull off an electoral upset against the Marcoses.

All elections are obviously important, but this year’s is arguably the most consequential in contemporary Philippine history. After six years of disruptive governance under outgoing populist president Rodrigo Duterte, the next Filipino president will be in an unprecedented position to completely alter the Philippines’ political system.

Then-opposition senatorial candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr autographing a portrait of his late father, the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, during a campaign rally in Manila ahead of the 1995 elections. AFP

The last time the South-East Asian nation held elections of this significance was back in 1969, when then President Ferdinand Marcos won a controversial re-election bid. That year’s race was universally decried by the international media as one of the most violent and fraudulent elections in Philippine history.

Deploying the “Three Gs” of guns, goons, and gold, the incumbent eventually overwhelmed the opposition leader, Sergio Osmena Jr, who shockingly even lost in his own bailiwick in central Philippines. In Cebu alone, the home base of the Osmenas, up to $50 million was spent, largely from state coffers, in order to secure the vote-rich province.

That fateful election would shape the trajectory of Philippine politics for the next half-a-century. Just a few years after becoming the post-war first Filipino president to win a re-election, Marcos declared Martial Law, locked up his rivals, enacted a new constitution and established one of the most notoriously decadent dictatorships in the post-colonial world.

For almost two decades, the Marcos family, a flamboyant political dynasty, ruled the country like a personal fiefdom, while much of the country descended into abject poverty and desperation. Soon, millions of Filipinos were forced to find better employment opportunities overseas, especially in the booming oil-rich economies of the Middle East.

The Marcos dictatorship eventually crashed under the gravity of its own blunders, including an economic meltdown and the assassination of popular opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr, which provoked massive protests in the early 1980s.

Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo addresses the crowd as workers, activists and other sectoral groups gathered to mark International Labour Day on May 1 in Manila. Getty Images

After a brief exile in Hawaii, the Marcoses returned to the country in the 1990s. Since then, they have carefully rehabilitated their image by deploying sophisticated networks of disinformation, exploiting loopholes in the Philippines’ judicial system and tapping into popular frustration with the deficiencies of democratic administrations in recent decades.

If surveys were to be believed, not only the Marcoses, but also other major political dynasties are expected to dominate all top offices and key branches of the government following this year’s elections. The Senate – the country’s most august legislative body that used to feature Ivy League graduates – is expected to be filled with a number of members of political dynasties, including siblings (the Cayetanos), a father and daughter (the Binays), and a mother and son (the Villars).

Only few progressive candidates, including re-electionist Senator Risa Hontiveros, are expected to win crucial posts in this year’s elections. Nevertheless, the opposition remains hopeful about its chances. Back in 2016, Leni Robredo managed to beat the ex-dictator’s son by rallying support among a broad coalition of voters, including the youth.

The opposition leader has also been inspired by another electoral upset in recent history, namely when opposition leader Corazon “Cory” Aquino managed to unseat former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the hastily-organised "snap elections" in 1986. In particular, Ms Robredo’s camp has been energised by a new wave of endorsements from the country’s mega-celebrities, including the matinee idol Piolo Pascual as well as standup comedian and host Vice Ganda.

Crucially, the opposition leader has also picked up endorsements from top administration allies, including several high-level officials from incumbent president Rodrigo Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.

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All elections are obviously important, but this year’s is arguably the most consequential in contemporary Philippine history

Meanwhile, Mr Duterte, who was dismayed with his daughter’s decision to shun the presidential race, has refused to endorse Marcos Jr. If anything, the outgoing president has publicly lambasted the current frontrunner as a “weak leader” and a “spoilt brat” – a princeling, who has largely leaned on the supposed achievements of his father.

Above all, the Robredo presidential campaign has also been boosted by an influx of passionate volunteers, who have gone house-to-house in campaigns across the country to win over undecided voters. The upshot of big endorsements and an army of devoted volunteers is a series of pro-opposition "grand rallies" across major cities in the country.

This is crucial, since the so-called “Pink Wave” – pink being the campaign colour of the opposition – of endorsements and major rallies could yet win over millions of first-time voters, belonging to generation z, who are deeply influenced by social media trends with no strong attachment to any of the top candidates.

The stakes could not be any higher for the Philippines. Should the Marcos family return to the Malacanang presidential palace, they will likely want to entrench themselves in power once again. And as in the post-1969 elections, the son could follow in the footsteps of his father by enacting a new constitution, which would strengthen his family’s grip on power.

Thus, beyond this year’s elections, Ms Robredo will have to oversee the creation of a long-term and coherent social movement, which could constrain the worst instincts of the notorious political dynasty. Almost exactly five decades since the declaration of martial law by former dictator Marcos, the Philippines is once again at the cusp of a historic transformation.

Published: May 05, 2022, 5:00 AM
Updated: May 07, 2022, 3:47 PM
Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at Polytechnic University of the Philippines