The world watches as Filipinos elect the successor of President Rodrigo Duterte on May 9, 2022. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., which the polling firm Pulse Asia says is leading the race by a wide margin, would like the election to be a plebiscite on reality itself. In 1986, his father and namesake Ferdinand Marcos was thrown out of power and driven to exile in the United States following massive demonstrations called the EDSA People Power uprising. His campaign, packaged ironically around the theme of “unity”, is based on fracturing consensus on historical facts. Massive online misinformation recasts the Marcos dictatorship as a golden age and circulates dumbfounding denials and conspiracy theories that the Marcos kleptocracy and human rights abuses were but myths. However, Leni Robredo, a Duterte critic who defeated Marcos Jr. in a tight race in the 2016 Vice Presidential election, may well stop the Marcos restoration. She’s running a volunteer-led campaign that is drawing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to her rallies almost every day, and according to Google Trends, she has outstripped Marcos Jr. in generating genuine online interest.
The very long Marcos restoration story
That Marcos Jr. became a serious contender for the presidency is in itself dumbfounding, but in hindsight, all too foreseeable. The Marcoses have been orchestrating a comeback to Malacañang Palace ever since they were exiled to Hawai’i. Marcos Sr. unsuccessfully tried to return to power through coup d’etats, and his wife Imelda, who was allowed to return to the country unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992 and 1998, ranking close to the bottom of the list of contenders in both attempts. The Marcoses also bankrolled Erap Estrada, the winner of the 1998 election, as well as Duterte, who reciprocated by allowing Marcos Sr.’s burial in the cemetery for heroes.
The very long Marcos comeback story is impossible without access to a very deep well of financial resources. And these resources the Marcoses clearly retained throughout the past decades. The Philippine government agency tasked to document and recover the Marcos ill-gotten wealth called the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) has recovered only a small part of this wealth largely from Swiss banks. But the true extent of the loot is unknown, no thanks to global mechanisms and financial safe havens that keep former dictators’ ill-gotten wealth hidden. Indeed, a glimpse into these legal blackholes afforded by the Panama Papers reveals that a Marcos daughter Irene Marcos-Araneta as well as his chief lawyer Edgardo Angara had previously unknown holdings in the British Virgin Islands.
Marcos Jr.’s advantages in this election are legion. Disinformation machines powered by Facebook, Youtube and Tiktok algorithms thrive unchecked in the country. To neutralize criticism of his War on Drugs, Rodrigo Duterte vigorously attacked journalists from Day 1 of his rule. He eventually took the largest news network ABS-CBN out of the airwaves. In place of traditional media, an elaborate industry of unaccountable public relations firms, influencers and vloggers manufacturing support for the administration now occupies the mainstream of the country’s information system. The result is a heavily poisoned social discourse with families and communities hurling invectives at each other Duterte-style, literally tearing each other apart. On top of these, Duterte has also packed the Commission on Elections with his appointees, including a former election lawyer for Marcos Jr., and Duterte’s close associate, the controversial businessman Dennis Uy controls the logistics for the automated elections.
A resurgence of EDSA People Power
All is not lost on the Filipinos, however. Leni Robredo is drawing enthusiasm never before seen since the 1986 EDSA People Power uprising and is consolidating popular resistance to disinformation and the Marcos restoration. Being the politician who received the most share of negative content from the disinformation machines since winning against Marcos Jr. in 2016, she started the campaign period for the 2022 election with a single digit survey rating at the bottom of the pack. Her campaign machinery was extremely weak, her political party having been unable to win a single national seat in the 2019 election. Nevertheless, in only a few weeks of campaigning, she has drawn mammoth crowds of supporters that easily overshadow Marcos Jr.’s well-financed and local politician-endorsed rallies. Marcos Jr. was absent in televised official presidential debates - preferring not to get entangled in questions about corruption and human rights violations - and often absent too in his own rallies. In contrast, Leni Robredo has been travelling to and campaigning in the remotest islands and regions as well as in supposed bailiwicks of the Marcoses and the Dutertes, supported by enthusiastic artists, organizers and common people who volunteer their own time and resources.
While Pulse Asia surveys indicate that Robredo’s constant rise in the surveys may not be enough to catch up to Marcos Jr.’s declining but commanding lead, big data analytics based on Google Trends say the opposite, i.e., that she has long caught up with Marcos Jr. and is now the likely candidate to win. Whatever may be the case, it is remarkable that genuine interest in Robrero in terms of Google searches within the Philippines has eclipsed Marcos Jr. The Marcos “family rebranding” have saturated the digital platforms with pro-Marcos content that for years have been algorithmically drilled on masses of Filipinos. Yet they are now actively searching for information on Leni Robredo. Clearly, the Robrero campaign has done way better than could have been expected given that the Filipinos have seemingly adored Duterte and stayed quiet about his human rights abuses in the War on Drugs.
The attempt to rehabilitate the Marcoses was perfectly foreseeable and could have been avoided. A kleptocratic political family backed by a global system for hiding ill-gotten wealth is exactly the kind of people who will try to come back to power after having been deposed. Clearly, whatever measures have been adopted to exact justice for the Marcoses’ atrocities have fallen short, and new measures are required, including global cooperation on making financial safe havens and digital platforms accountable. The onus for halting the Marcos restoration, however, is currently now placed on Filipino voters.