Marcos Jr on course for big win as Philippine presidential election campaigning ends

Latest polls show son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos leading his closest rival, Leni Robredo, by 33 percentage points

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Final polls from the Philippine presidential election are showing the son of former leader Ferdinand Marcos heading for a landslide win.

Victory in Monday's election would cap a decades-long effort to rehabilitate the Marcos legacy after the former dictator was deposed and the family chased into exile in the US.

But the prospect of Ferdinand Marcos Jr moving back into the presidential palace has alarmed rights activists, church leaders and political analysts who fear he could rule "without constraint".

Ten candidates are vying to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte in the contest regarded by many as a make-or-break moment for the country's democracy.

The Marcos family's remarkable journey from pariahs to the peak of political power has been fuelled by public anger about corruption and poverty.

Polls indicate Mr Marcos Jr will win more than half the vote, which would make him the first presidential candidate to secure an absolute majority since his father was ousted in 1986.

Analysts say such an outcome would lead to weaker democratic checks and balances, more corruption and a new attempt to overhaul the 1987 constitution — which could include scrapping the one-term limit for presidents.

"If he wins really big, that could give him the kind of confidence and momentum to more radically alter the Philippines' political system," analyst Richard Heydarian said.

Previous administrations, including Mr Duterte's, have tried to amend the constitution but lacked sufficient support in Congress to push through the changes.

The latest poll by Pulse Asia Research showed Mr Marcos Jr on 56 per cent — 33 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival Leni Robredo, who narrowly beat him in the 2016 vice-presidential race

Such a winning margin would give Mr Marcos Jr the power to "govern the way Duterte wanted to", one long-time observer of Philippine politics told AFP.

"That is, without constraint," he said.

Ms Robredo, 57, has warned supporters that the "future of the country" is at stake.

Her recent poll bump has raised hopes among progressive supporters that their volunteer-driven campaign could yet deliver an upset.

But pollster Ana Maria Tabunda of Pulse Asia Research said there was little chance of that.

"Our error margin is only plus or minus two percentage points — given the large gap, it's not going to be affecting the results," Ms Tabunda said.

Allegations of dirty tricks marred the last week of a bitter presidential campaign, as Mr Marcos Jr issued a warning about vote-rigging while Ms Robredo accused him of being a liar.

Monday's winner only needs to get more votes than anyone else.

"I think this election is very important ... our next six years of life will depend on it," said Charmaigne Ang, 18, a first-time voter who was among thousands of people gathered in Manila's financial district for a rally by Ms Robredo on Saturday.

Still smarting from his 2016 loss, Mr Marcos Jr has run a tightly controlled campaign, skipping televised debates with rivals and largely shunning media interviews to avoid own goals before election day.

He has instead posted folksy videos on YouTube that seek to present him and his wealthy family as regular Filipinos, and fielded easy questions from celebrity interviewers.

A large and well-funded social media misinformation campaign targeting a mostly young electorate with no memory of his father's violent and corrupt rule has also sought to rewrite the family's history.

Mr Marcos Jr's popularity has been further enhanced by a formidable alliance with vice-presidential front-runner and first daughter Sara Duterte, and the backing of several rival political dynasties.

Days before the election, rights defenders and many Catholic priests made a final push to stop Mr Marcos Jr returning to the Malacanang Palace, where he grew up.

"It will be another six years of hell," warned political satirist and activist Mae Paner, 58, who was part of a popular uprising that ended the elder Marcos's regime and has been campaigning for Ms Robredo.

Hundreds of priests publicly endorsed Ms Robredo and her running mate Francis Pangilinan, telling their congregations that the election was a "battle for the soul" of the nation.

But Ms Robredo faces an uphill battle, said Cleve Arguelles, an assistant lecturer in political science at De La Salle University in Manila.

After enduring six years of attacks from the elder Duterte, Ms Robredo has witnessed her popularity hammered by a relentless and vicious online smear campaign.

Mr Heydarian said her late decision to enter the race had cost valuable time, while "unnecessary infighting" among rival candidates had benefited Mr Marcos Jr.

"They are handing this on a silver platter to the princeling of Philippine politics, Bongbong Marcos," he said, using Mr Marcos Jr's nickname.

Updated: May 07, 2022, 3:46 PM