Personality beats the political program

Leni Robredo

Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo waves supporters during the campaign rally

© picture alliance / | Oliver Haynes

Political parties in the Philippines are weak which is why campaigns and elections focus on personalities instead. This can also be seen by the whopping number of almost 100 Filipinos aspiring to become the country’s next president who filed their candidacy by the end of 2021. After official authorities took “nuisance candidates” off the list the ballot boiled down to 10 final candidates. Among the top five are a former boxing champion, a former actor as well as a former policeman who is accused of numerous human-rights violations. The general lack of strong and clear party programs is also visible on the streets: large tarpaulins printed with only names and faces of the candidates are omnipresent in even the smallest of villages of the country. The focus on the candidates’ personalities might even lead to a continuation of the Duterte era in a different way: Sara Duterte, daughter of the still President Rodrigo Duterte and vice-presidential candidate, benefits from the unbroken popularity of her father despite his violent rule. Among all candidates for vice-president she would receive more than 50 percent of all votes according to the latest surveys.

According to the latest surveys most promising presidential candidate with around 55 percent of votes is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled the Philippines under Martial Law for almost two decades until his ousting in 1986. Marcos’ strongest opponent is current Vice-President Leni Robredo who has been gaining a lot of traction and momentum through an ever-growing volunteer campaign – but is the movement strong enough to turn the tides?

The Re-Rise of the Marcos Family

Dynastic politics are common in the Philippines in all levels of government. The return of the Marcos family into politics however has been an extraordinary and long planned maneuver. Already in 2019, the independent and investigative news portal published reports which revealed disinformation campaigns aiming to polish the image of the Marcos family. At the same time on Social Media,  Marcos’ supporter, trolls and fake accounts tried to revise history by denying the omnipresent corruption and human-rights violations Marcos Sr. is to hold accountable for. In the first three years under Martial Law rule Marcos Sr. had around 50,000 church workers, human rights defenders, legal aid lawyers, labour leaders and journalists arrested and detained. In stark contrast trolls and fake accounts now paint his dictatorship as a “golden era”. The median age in the Philippines is around 25 years, the country holds the world record with an average of 4 hours daily spent on Social Media. This combination makes young voters even more receptive to false information as they have neither witnessed the Marcos dictatorship themselves nor are they taught in school as education in the Philippines neglects the dark era under Marcos Sr.’s reign. In the country, certain Social Media channels can be browsed for free without consuming paid data plans. In this way, these platforms are often the primary and only source of information in the Philippines where poverty stands at around 25 percent of the population. Program algorithms prevent further exchange outside the users’ own echo-chambers which further propels one-sided views and mindsets among Filipinos. The effect of these disinformation mechanisms can also be seen when looking closer at the age groups which would vote for “Bongbong” Marcos: supporters of the son of the late dictator drop by around one third when they are old enough to have witnessed the Martial Law themselves.

Disinformation as campaigning tactic

As much Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos as the most aspiring presidential candidate benefitted from election-related disinformation, as much did it  place his strongest opponent, current Vice-President Leni Robredo, in a negative light. In 2016, Robredo and Marcos already competed for the office of Vice-President. Robredo won the election by around 250.000 votes. Despite a Supreme Court ruling voiding allegations by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that Robredo won through poll fraud the rumor of a “stolen election” still holds strong in Filipino Social Media – just one of the many examples for the aimed defamation activities which Leni Robredo is the main target of compared to other presidential candidates

Scandals in exchange for factual election battle

Not only disinformation but also scandals dominated the months leading up to the elections on May 9th. One of the major controversies has been the general eligibility of “Bongbong” Marcos to run for president: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is convicted of failure to pay estate taxes resulting from allegedly ill-gotten wealth which his late father accumulated during the time of his dictatorship until the family got ousted in 1986 and flew into exile. A petition meanwhile estimates the tax debts to over 203 billion PHP after adding interests, surcharges, and other penalties. The constitution of the Philippines prohibits Filipinos to run for president if they are convicted of crimes. Appeals regarding the Marcos’ tax debts are still ongoing in court and just days before the election disqualification appeals against “Bongbong” Marcos are still up for review by the Commission on Elections in the Philippines. In addition to a potential ineligible presidential frontrunner, several news on double registration by almost 900.000 Filipino voters, multiple handing out of ballots to overseas citizen and receiving of faulty ballots by diaspora voters stirred up the ongoing election campaigns. In addition, the official poll results create suspense: while Leni Robredo was able to gain 10 percentage points in the first four weeks of the official election campaign and was in favor at about a quarter of voters, approval for "Bongbong" Marcos decreased by about five percent. Still, a good half of all voters would vote for the son of the former dictator. Since polls in the Philippines are published with a laps of several weeks, they tend to show a trend rather than the current numbers among the electorate. The upcoming elections remain exciting until the end: Is Leni Robredo’s momentum sufficient to win?