Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines Passing through a crowd of supporters, Vice President Lenny Robredo moved carefully as a group of teenagers began to gather around her, picking up the cameras on their phones, ready to take selfies. The presidential candidate complied with the request of her masked fans, as her staff repeatedly reminded the growing crowd to keep their distance due to the limitations of COVID-19.
Other supporters stood to the side, waving handmade posters and pink banners with the image of Robredo and shouting her name in unison. Their voices were muffled by the booming live music playing for a dancing troupe rocking and spinning in local costumes as they greeted a high-ranking female employee of the Philippines.
In a typical election year, when candidates attract voters to up-and-down events in the country of 7,107 islands, Robredo’s The Mardi Gras-style reception would be considered tame. But during a pandemic, when community blockade and firm restrictions on mass gatherings are the new norm, organizers say activity has exceeded their expectations.
As the campaign season officially kicked off on Tuesday, Robredo and the other candidates were forced to adjust to the electoral landscape turned upside down by COVID-19.
After the People Power protests in 1986 and the restoration of democracy, presidential and vice presidential elections are held every six years, with Filipinos also voting for 12 senators, more than 300 members of the House and about 18,000 local positions, from governors to members of the municipal council – in a circus political jamboree, which lasts three months.
Abandoning in opinion polls, Robredo seeks to attract supporters and win a new victory from behind on May 9, as he did in 2016, when she was elected vice president.
Against her – and currently the most popular candidate for President Rodrigo Duterte – is Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., whose brutal rule was ended by protests in 1986.
After six years in power of the strong man at Duterte, who has been barred from running for president a second time, the stakes cannot be higher.
“If Bongbong Marcos wins, it confirms that Duterte’s victory is not just a breakthrough in political history after Marcos,” said Robin Michael Garcia, head of WR Numero, a Manila-based research and analysis firm using Marcos Jr. nickname.
“We know that Duterte already has authoritarian tendencies and I do not think Bongbong will be better than Duterte in political governance,” Garcia told Al Jazeera.
There are about 65.74 million registered voters in the country. One presidential candidate only needs to win more votes than any other candidate to win.
“High economic stake”
With the economy affected by the coronavirus, “the future of the county is at stake,” Hezekiah Concepcion, a professor of social sciences at the University of Ateneo de Zamboanga, told Al Jazeera.
“The new president must be able to lead the recovery of the economy affected by the pandemic, which according to experts costs our country about 40 trillion pesos ($ 776.6 billion),” he said.
– ONE News PH (@onenewsph) December 20, 2021
According to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), unemployment is also projected at 1.1 million this year, 10 percent higher than before the pandemic. In November, the Philippine statistical authority estimated the number of unemployed at 3.16 million.
Concepcion says given the situation, the next president must be “inspiring” to unite the country and “smart in choosing experts and technocrats” to tackle economic, educational, health and pandemic issues.
But instead of focusing on the economy and the pandemic, many candidates have been involved in backstage deals and political jockeys for months as they seek to succeed Duterte. Duterte himself had run for senator, but later dropped out.
Marcos and Duterte-Carpio tandem
Analysts say Duterte’s political machine has mobilized behind Marcos Jr., although Duterte himself calls Marcos Jr. a “weak leader.”
However, his own daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, seems to think otherwise. She declared her support for Marcos Jr. and agreed to run for his vice president, consolidating their support into a great base. At one point, she was also considering running for president.
Even before announcing his candidacy for president in October, Marcos Jr. used his 4.4 million Facebook followers to spread his message and attract voters through “virtual campaign caravans” and online “meeting and greeting” events. .
His campaign also publishes smoothly produced daily deposits and hosts periodic live chats on Facebook to offset limited personal rallies. However, in one of his videos, Marcos Jr. says he still prefers the “old school” campaign, where he can see and shake hands with his supporters.
Garcia of the sociological firm WR Numero described Marcos Jr.’s campaign 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 team of Marcos and Duterte-Carpio that Duterte remains very popular despite the economic recession and pandemic, as well as the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation into his typical drug war for a possible “crime against humanity to murder.”
Marcos’ toughest opponent
As vice president, Robredo is considered the leading opposition figure in the Philippines and Marcos Jr.’s toughest opponent.
Robredo and Duterte were sworn in in 2016, but disagreed on many issues, including tackling the pandemic response and the drug war, which she described as a “failure”.
Presidents and vice-presidents are elected separately in the Philippines, which often leads to the selection of candidates from rival parties, such as Duterte and Robredo, who are then unable to work together.
As vice president in 2016, Robredo defeated Marcos Jr., who continued to challenge his victory in court. Although the effort failed, his supporters staged a protracted social media campaign, questioning the legitimacy of Robredo’s victory, weighing on its popularity. Recent studies show that she lags behind Marcos Jr. by a large margin, although her rating is rising again.
Robredo has tried to garner the support of other opposition figures in an attempt to eat Marcos Jr.’s lead, but so far with little success.
These presidential candidates are international boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isco Moreno and Senator Panfilo Laxon.
However, when it comes to experience and record, no other candidate is close to Robredo, says Anton Marie Lim, a veterinarian from Mindanao and community leader.
He says he supports Robredo because the 2022 race is “a personal struggle for the future of my son and the many children in the poor communities we serve.”
“This is one of those rare times when our choice is not in the choice of 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 priority as president, adding that by managing COVID-19, the country could reopen its economy faster.
“There is a great deficit in [Duterte] the pandemic response of the administration, but it is not too late and we can still correct them, “she said in English and Tagalog.
“Incorrectly acquired wealth”
Marcos Jr. faces his own set of challenges. He continues to reject questions about his family’s dubious wealth and numerous allegations that they have failed to return billions of dollars to the government.
By 2020, the Philippines has recovered a total of 174.2 billion Philippine pesos ($ 3.38 billion) from the Marcos family, according to the Philippine Commission for Good Governance (PCGG), whose sole task is to fight public funds lost during of Marcos mode.
PCGG estimates that by 2021 some 125.9 billion Philippine pesos ($ 2.45 billion) more in “ill-gotten wealth” remains to be recovered from Marcos.
The Marcos family also owes the Philippine government another 203 billion Philippine pesos ($ 3.94 billion) in unpaid property taxes, according to retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who leads a multisectoral group opposing Marcos’ candidacy.
In a media forum, Carpio warned that it may no longer be possible to recover the money if Marcos Jr. becomes president.
Marcos Jr. has also been the subject of disqualification claims before the Comelec electorate over a previous conviction for failing to file income tax returns for four years in the 1980s.
On several occasions, Marcos Jr. avoided questions about his family’s wealth and financial affairs by refusing to participate in debates and television forums with other candidates, and instead relied on interviews with friendly media members and advertisers to convey his message. unity “.
A concepción from the University of Ateneo de Zamboanga says that so far his strategy has allowed him to stay above the battle and convey the message he wants to promote.
However, Robredo questioned the message of Marcos Jr., saying that unity is meaningless if there is no justice for those who were victims of human rights violations during the dictatorship, and if the Marcos family fails to return the remaining money. stolen from the government.
When the sprint to the finish line begins, Robredo, the only female candidate in the presidential race, said in a televised debate on Friday that she was confident she would beat Marcos Jr. once again.
“I have never given up on a challenge I have faced and this 2022 the last man to stay will still be a woman.