Originally published in Portuguese in the Expresso newspaper
By Catarina Brites Soares
The social capital that Rodrigo Duterte has raised since 2016 and the power he holds until the end of his six-year presidential term may influence the outcome of the May 9 elections, whose campaign begins on February 8. The current head of state cannot run again, but analysts predict that will not be the end of him. Polls indicate that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, will likely win. The current vice-president, Leni Robredo, follows, in a total of 10 candidates, which includes the boxer Manny Pacquiao.“Mark Jr. has the advantage of having as number two the daughter of Duterte, the mayor of Davao, which makes them an unbeatable duo, given the president’s popularity”, says Jose Ramon Albert, from the Institute for Development Studies and a member of a think-tank. Philippine Government tank.
Mark Jr. (popularly known as “Bongbong”) does not suit Duterte, who called him a drug addict, spoiled and weak.
Mong Palatino, former deputy and editor of the newspaper “Global Voices”, attributes the success to a propaganda and disinformation campaign. In his view, Marcos “has made a systematic effort to whiten history and install the idea that his father's dictatorship was the golden age”. This is echoed by the analyst Joel Rocamora, “Now, it is believed that Marcos' times were extraordinary and that he was the best President the country had”, emphasizes the former director of the Institute for Popular Democracy and the Transnational Institute. Exiled during the Marcos regime, he explains that the mindset that the Philippines needs strong leaders prevails.
To the sociopolitical explanation, Rocamora adds that Marcos “has a lot of money, the result of what his parents stole from the State, which he astutely applied”. He explains how: “After turning to Cambridge Analytica [a company that specializes in collecting data on social networks to manipulate users and win votes for those who pay the most], he managed to dominate public opinion. With the major media banned by the government, social media has become the main source of information.”
“What could be worse?”
The latest Pulse Asia poll gave Marcos Jr. more than 50% of the votes. In September, he got 15%. The ascent was sharp and the fall could be steep, predicts Rocamora. “No one wants to reach the peak months before the elections, because it is very difficult to keep up.”
The academic, who belonged to the Anti-Poverty Commission of former President Nonoy Aquino, Duterte's predecessor, does not hide his preference for Leni Robredo. “While Marcos senior ruled, the family acted as if they owned the Philippines. Even purchases in New York did, with the central bank paying. This in addition to the victims of the dictatorship. What could be worse? In recent years, the Philippines has been in the news for Duterte's ridicule. If Mark Jr. win, we move from comedy to tragedy.”
Abhijit Shanker, who worked at the United Nations for over a decade, agrees that Robredo could be the turning point the country needs. He highlights three reasons: to be internationally respected, qualified, and sensitive to the importance of gender equality.
Rocamora recalls the candidate's anonymous past, dedicated to human rights, for example in legal support to the disadvantaged, indigenous and women's rights defenders. Robredo maintained that agenda as vice president, despite the boycott of those who had above. "It's amazing what she's done, considering Duterte always belittled her."
Albert stresses that Robredo lost in asserting himself as an opposition to a popular President, “despite controversial policies”. The label of elitist and anti-populist does not suit him at a time when populism is gaining votes in the face of frustration with inequalities and the lack of response from institutions.
Shanker lists problems such as unemployment, which exceeds 10%. “Duterte promised to resolve the dramas, but focused on eliminating opponents, which leads me to another urgency: to clean up the country’s image in terms of human rights, in order to recover foreign investment.”
Another challenge will be to reduce corruption. The Philippines ranks 117th out of 180 countries in the NGO Transparency International's index. There is still the issue
Demographic: the population is expected to grow by 20% in the next decade. Rocamora notes that poverty has increased by 5% and that “six years of Duterte have tremendously affected political institutions and the rule of law”.
Duterte's Invisible Hand
Palatino asks: “Will the new Administration allow the International Court to investigate and prosecute Duterte for the human rights violations of the anti-drug campaign? Will the new government maintain its passive policy towards China?” The answers depend on which of the candidates wins. The separate vice-presidential race is led by Sara Duterte and has nine names.
Albert recalls that the candidate “distanced herself from her father” in public, for example, opposing the ban on non-vaccinated against covid-19 traveling on public transport, which can play in her favor.
The preferences of the current President are unknown, whose silence is strange. For Albert, it is evident that he will not disappear. “Despite having stated that he wants to withdraw, he changes his ideas easily. He was just talking about running for vice president and then the Senate.” “He is known for resorting to unconventional tactics,” warns Palatino. At stake is a disqualification petition from Marcos Jr. — for having been convicted of tax evasion in the 1980s, when his father ruled — in which Duterte can intervene.
Enjoying the popularity
“Duterte has the highest approval ratings of all Presidents since the 1980s, which proves that it still has a say in these elections”, reinforces Albert. He recalls that “you can use the Budget to promote a candidate”. Duterte enjoys the approval of 55% of men and 52% of women. If the Constitution allowed it, he would easily be re-elected, despite the legacy. According to official data, around 6,200 suspected drug-linkers died.
Human rights organizations speak of 8,000 to 30,000 victims. “It is for the anti-drug campaign that he wants to be remembered, despite the extrajudicial killings and human rights violations”, denounces Shanker, stressing that Duterte was internationally convicted.
Former US President Barack Obama was one of the voices that spoke up. The criticism did little to affect the man who compared himself to Donald Trump and Hitler. “Duterte will be remembered for the worst reasons, the only lesson he leaves us is how to never govern a country”, stresses Shanker.
Mark Jr. “makes a systematic effort to whiten History and install the idea that the father’s dictatorship was the golden age”, accuses former deputy Mong Palatino.
“Duterte will be remembered for the worst reasons and the only lesson he leaves us is how to never govern a country,” says Abhijit Shanker, who worked at the UN.