Campaigning for the Philippines’ general election officially kicked off on February 8, turning up the heat on an already divisive polls overshadowed by memories of a dark era in the country’s recent past and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the 64-year-old son and namesake of the late dictator, is leading a pack of nine other candidates who are seeking to replace President Rodrigo Duterte three months from now.
He appears set to win by a landslide as polls show that more than 50 per cent of voters favour him, completing a revival of the Marcos family’s political brand that has been more than 35 years in the making.
Arrayed against the front runner are the same political forces that rose against his father and forced his family to flee the Philippines in 1986.
Their candidate is Vice President Leni Robredo, 56, who has already defeated Marcos in the 2016 race for the vice presidency but now trails him by a wide margin in the polls.
Marcos – who in 1986 was just a 28-year-old lanky, long-haired playboy – has anchored his family’s unlikely comeback on voters dissatisfied with how the Philippines has been run since his father was booted out of power in 1986 after a military-backed civilian revolt.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr presided over a regime that, according to court and historical records, killed and tortured thousands and stole roughly $10 billion in government treasure over more than 20 years of authoritarian rule.
He died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, but his wife, Imelda, and children, including the current presidential candidate, were subsequently allowed to return home. They have since managed to claw back the political influence they lost.
The rise of social media has allowed the Marcoses to rewrite the narrative.
Most of the candidate’s followers – empowered in echo chambers and by confirmation biases enabled by Facebook and other social media platforms – are dismissing documented evidence and accounts against the family as either propaganda or overblown.
Marcos himself has been hammering this point on the campaign trail.
“This is not the time and place to be arguing about the history of the Philippines,” he said during a recent television interview.
Hoping to roll back the tide, Robredo – who now leads the political party that sprang out of the 1986 anti-Marcos revolt – is herself taking to social media in an uphill battle to remind voters of the years of crippling economic decline, rampant corruption and civil rights abuses that were the hallmarks of the years when the dictator was in office.
In a synchronised effort, her supporters on February 8 changed their Facebook profile and cover photos to a plain pink background with a tiny rose at one corner, or variations of it, to signal a “pink wave” that has come to characterise her campaign.
Kicking off her run for the presidency in Lupi town in the central province of Camarines Sur, she told supporters that she was “filled with courage because you are with me”.
There are eight other candidates running for president, including world boxing legend Manny Pacquiao and Manila’s popular mayor and former celebrity Isko Moreno.
But none of them comes close to Marcos’ polling numbers.
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK