Presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, is the heavy favorite to win Monday's election. File Photo by Rolex Dela Pena/EPA-EFE
MANILA, May 6 (UPI) -- The Philippines' 67.5 million registered voters will head to the polls Monday to choose the successor to strongman President Rodrigo Duterte, whose checkered, controversial -- and highly popular -- six years in office come to an end after a constitutionally mandated single term.
The front-runner has a name that resonates throughout the Philippines and beyond: Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the 64-year-old son and namesake of the dictator who ruled for 20 years until being ousted by a popular uprising in 1986.
Marcos' main opponent from a field of 10 candidates is Vice President Leni Robredo, 57, a former human rights lawyer who has frequently been at odds with Duterte over policies such as his violent war on drugs. Robredo has focused her campaign on protecting democracy and cleaning up corruption in government.
The presidency is not the only up office up for grabs on Monday. Thousands of other races will be contested, from Senate seats to local and provincial posts.
A key battle will be for the position of vice president, which is held as a standalone contest. The front-runner for that race also comes from a famous political family: Sara Duterte, 43, daughter of the current president. She has formed an alliance with Marcos Jr., which has driven tremendous support to his campaign.
Marcos Jr., widely known by his nickname Bongbong, has held a commanding lead in the polls for months. A Pulse Asia survey released this week found 56% of respondents favoring Marcos Jr. to 23% for Robredo.
Boxing legend Manny Pacquiao is a distant third, with 7% support.
What's at stake
The incoming president will face numerous issues, from deep-rooted corruption to COVID-19 pandemic recovery, but campaign season has been driven by personalities, famous family ties and a heavy dose of disinformation glorifying the Marcos era.
For some observers, Monday's election represents a battle for the very future of democracy in the Philippines.
"This is the most consequential election in the Philippines in the past half a century," Manila-based political analyst Richard Heydarian told UPI. "The last time we had an election of this significance, with long-term generational consequences, was in 1969 when another Marcos was on the ballot."
After Ferdinand Marcos Sr. won that election, he went on to impose martial law, kill and imprison thousands and siphon off as much as $10 billion from the country before being driven out of office by the People Power Revolution in 1986.
"Even though it fell in 1986, the legacy of the dictatorship never went away," Heydarian said. "We're still living in its shadow."
Under Duterte, the Philippines has taken a turn back toward authoritarianism, as the populist strongman killed thousands in a drug war and has used the powers of his office to silence critics, attack the media and hobble government oversight.
Heydarian said a Marcos-Duterte tandem could continue to undermine democracy and cement their family dynasties in power for decades to come.
"[Rodrigo] Duterte didn't have the wherewithal and discipline to create a new order, but a Marcos presidency, together with Sara Duterte, will be young and disciplined enough to finish off what he started," Heydarian said. "We could be looking at the introduction of a new constitution in the coming years."
Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
After being exiled in 1986, the Marcos clan returned home in the 1990s and its members have reintegrated themselves into the mainstream of Philippine life and politics. Flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos, now 92, served in congress until 2019. Bongbong was governor of his family's home province of Ilocos Norte and later became a congressman and senator.
Bongbong's campaign has been boosted by coordinated online disinformation efforts, according to fact checkers, that have sought to whitewash the Marcos Sr. legacy as well as spread negative information about his opponents.
Tsek.ph, a collaborative fact-checking project, found that 94% of the false information posts it analyzed about Robredo were negative.
"Disinformation has been more pervasive than it has been in past elections," Rachel Khan, associate dean of the University of the Philippines College of Media Communication and coordinator of Tsek.ph, told UPI.
Khan said the false information about the Marcos family has been almost uniformly positive and has evolved to target voters too young to remember the martial law era on platforms such as TikTok.
"There has been an effort for historical revisionism showing that the Marcos years were the golden years of the Philippines," Khan said.
Robredo worked as a human rights lawyer and entered politics after her husband, who served as secretary of the interior, died in a plane crash in 2012. She won a seat in congress in 2013 before defeating Bongbong Marcos for the vice presidency in 2016, becoming the second woman to hold the office.
She has focused on human rights and gender equality during her political career and is campaigning on restoring the rule of law, but has trailed Marcos Jr. in the polls throughout.
Her supporters haven't given up hope, however. Robredo has picked up a wave of endorsements from athletes, celebrities and even political leaders from Duterte's home province of Mindanao. Her candidacy has also been bolstered by a grass-roots movement of some 2 million door-to-door volunteers and a series of high-energy rallies in recent weeks.
On Saturday, the final day of campaigning, organizers are expecting as many as 1 million supporters to turn out for a rally in downtown Manila that they hope will help push Robredo across the finish line to an upset victory.