MANILA – the Philippines vote Monday in the most controversial presidential elections of recent decades, with the prospect of a once unthinkable return to government of the Marcos family, 36 years after being dominated by a revolt of “popular power”.
The election sees vice president Leni Robredo against former senator and deputy Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son and namesake of a dictator whose twenty-year government ended with a public revolt and the humiliating retreat of his family into exile.
Opinion polls put Marcos, popularly known as “Bongbong”, ahead of his rival by more than 30 percentage points, having topped all polls this year. This means Robredo will need a late surge or low voter turnout if he is to win the presidency.
Marcos, 64, has not presented a true political platform, but his presidency is expected to provide continuity from outgoing leader Rodrigo Duterte, whose ruthless and strong approach proved popular and helped him quickly consolidate power.
Robredo, 57, a former human rights lawyer and staunch liberal, has pledged to improve education and well-being, fight poverty and improve market competition if elected.
Polls open at 6am (2200 GMT on Sunday) and close at 19:00 (1100 GMT on Monday) and an unofficial vote count could give an indication of who is the winner a few hours later.
Marcos is backed by a sect-like following of Filipino youths born after the 1986 revolution, who launched a massive social media offensive in an optimistic campaign that brought undertones of historical revisionism.
His social media supporters and influencers have dismissed narratives of looting, cronyism and brutality under his deceased father’s martial law as lies passed off by opponents, presenting what his critics say is a different version of the story. The Marcos camp denied having conducted disinformation campaigns.
Despite its fall from grace, the Marcos family returned from exile in the 1990s and have been a powerful force in Filipino politics ever since, maintaining their influence with vast wealth and far-reaching connections.
The vote also represents an opportunity for Marcos to avenge his bitter defeat to Robredo in the 2016 presidential election, a minor defeat of just 200,000 votes that he unsuccessfully tried to overturn.
“Victory of Unity”
Mass demonstrations were held in the capital Manila on Saturday in a finale similar to a countryside festival.
Marcos stayed away from debates and campaigned on a message of optimism and unity, telling hundreds of thousands of supporters on Saturday that he dreamed of a “unity victory for the whole. Philippines“.
Robredo promised supporters better education, health care and public services if elected.
“It is our right to have a dignified future and it is our duty to fight for this”, he said, singing “Leni, Leni”.
A turning point in the election could be incumbent Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio, the popular daughter of the incumbent president, who could transfer some of her father’s huge support to Marcos. The president has not approved any candidates.
About 65 million Filipinos can vote to decide on a successor to Duterte after his six years in power.
Also up for grabs about 18,000 offices, from seats in the Senate and Congress to mayors, governors and advisers.
In a comment, author and political analyst Richard Heydarian said the stakes are higher than any other election in recent years, with Marcos likely to revise the constitution to bolster his power if he wins, and Robredo able to prevent a “Marcosian hegemony”.
“Make no mistake: these are the most consequential elections in contemporary Filipino history,” he wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
—Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Susan Fenton