MANILA — Surrounded by a sea of supporters wearing pink — her campaign’s color — shirts and waving ribbons, Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo last week made her way to register and formalize her bid for the country’s presidency as the country prepares for a May election to pick a successor to President Rodrigo Duterte.
It was as if there were no pandemic. Hundreds of Robredo supporters occupied a road leading to the candidacy filing center to express their support just hours after she finally announced her decision to run. Public health protocols against COVID-19 were not observed as police failed to control the crowd.
The same scenes were repeated earlier in the week as other candidates formalized their intent to join the crowded race to succeed Duterte, who is stepping down next year and is constitutionally barred from seeking another six-year term.
The Philippines will be conducting one of the biggest elections in Asia in May, in the middle of a pandemic during which 2.6 million Filipinos contracted COVID-19 while nearly 40,000 died, according to the John Hopkins University data.
Human rights lawyer Robredo, the leader of the opposition, launched her presidential bid after failing to unify the opposition to come up with a single candidate meant to put an end to the Duterte regime and to prevent a repeat of the dictatorial regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos.
“We need to liberate ourselves from the current situation. I will fight, we will fight,” she said Thursday. “We will overcome the old and rotten brand of politics.”
There are almost 100 filed candidates for the presidency, but political analysts and observers think that there are five or six big names.
Boxing-legend-turned-Senator Manny Pacquiao, 42, was the first presidential hopeful to file his candidacy earlier this month. Pacquiao, whose world popularity catapulted him to Philippine politics, was once declared the next president by Duterte.
Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, 73, will attempt to clinch the top post for the second time after a failed bid two decades ago. A former national police chief, Lacson is running on the same public order, anti-criminality and anti-corruption platform that got Duterte elected.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, 46, who rose from the city’s slums to become a famous actor, is also eyeing the presidency. Critics claim Moreno is “Duterte’s secret candidate,” a claim he denies.
Last Wednesday, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the former president, also filed his candidacy for president in a move to take back control of the Philippines nearly 50 years after the Marcos dictatorship was toppled by the pro-democracy People Power Revolution in 1986.
Marcos, 64, is running at a time when the controversial family, whose loot from their decades-long rule of the country totals to what experts estimate to be between $5 billion to $10 billion, is enjoying an image rehabilitation partly attributed to Duterte.
“I will bring that form of unifying leadership back to our country,” Marcos said in a short video announcing his presidential bid.
More than 100 activist groups, though, including those who suffered human rights abuses during the Marcos dictatorship, have vowed to stop another Marcos presidency.
On the last day of filing last Friday, Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa filed his candidacy for president under Duterte’s PDP-Laban party. Dela Rosa is Duterte’s former police chief who was named in a crime against humanity complaint lodged in the International Criminal Court over his involvement in the regime’s bloody war on drugs.
Duterte’s daughter, Sara, has apologized to her supporters for filing a candidacy for Davao City instead of president despite topping early poll surveys.
But Dela Rosa’s surprise filing of candidacy stoked speculation that he was just holding the place of Sara Duterte. Under Philippine elections rule, substitution within the same political party is allowed and the deadline for that is November 15.
Analysts think the May election will be one of the most hotly contested in recent Philippine history. It is seen as a referendum between extending Duterte’s power and influence or shifting to a more democratic government.
Critics say Duterte’s regime saw the erosion of rule of law and human rights in Asia’s oldest democracy. The government’s poor pandemic response overwhelmed the country’s health care system and shattered recent economic gains, with Bloomberg placing the country last in its resilience ranking.
Remaining popular, Duterte is expected to endorse a candidate who will likely shield him from lawsuits when he steps down. His bloody war on drugs that claimed the lives of thousands of Filipinos also haunts him as the ICC opens an investigation on the crimes against humanity case and an arrest warrant may be in order.
For political analyst Jean Encinas-Franco, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, Robredo is “the only true-blue opposition.”
“Her running in the elections is a strong statement in itself: that there’s somebody among the crop of candidates, there’s somebody out there who can seriously challenge the rise of another Marcos to the presidency and also would have serious commitment to human rights because her record shows that,” Encinas-Franco told VOA.
But the Philippine peoples’ choices for their next leader won’t be finalized until the November deadline, as parties may pull off surprise substitutions for presidential and vice presidential candidates, confusing the electorate and giving them too little time to evaluate the bidders.
“This is crazy,” Encinas-Franco said. “It makes a mockery of the entire electoral process.”
Then-candidate Duterte used the same tactic in 2016 when he did not show up to file for candidacy, building up suspense and drama before eventually substituting for a placeholder candidate.
“We are in a guessing game right now. That is why our elections are so unpredictable,” Encinas-Franco said. “Bad for the economy, bad for democracy.”
Source: Voice of America