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Leni Robredo’s Pink Revolution
Trying to prove EDSA was no mirage
By: Criselda Yabes
There is an unusual festive revolution unfolding in the Philippine campaign for the presidential election that will take place next week. Since election fever started to rise in early February, it has become a striking parallel to the 1986 people-power revolt that wound up bloodlessly toppling a dictator. This time around, supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo are in a dogged fight to stop the same late dictator’s son Ferdinand Marcos Jr from the possibility of winning.
It is the same buoyant energy of peaceful gatherings, but a situation that has turned upside down. Thirty-six years after a revolution brought freedom back, the elections are now becoming a last call for Filipinos to save democracy.
There is a cognitive disconnect. Google Trends shows Robredo is winning lopsidedly. Mock elections in universities and colleges with tens of thousands voting show Robredo is winning lopsidedly. Rallies, with hundreds of thousands in attendance, show Robredo is winning lopsidedly.
Traditional surveys with 2,000 to 3,000 respondents show Bongbong is winning lopsidedly. Certainly, steadily plotting a path to return to power during the past two decades, the Marcos family has bombarded social media with misinformation, gamed the algorithm on free-data Facebook available to a wider population. It is largely these voters who fell for the idea of the dictator’s golden age when there was never one, driving up Marcos Jr’s numbers in the pre-election polls.
Robredo is trailing although the groundswell at her campaign rallies seems to defy the surveys and pushes forward what she calls a “crusade” to resist a turn back to the past. Materializing spontaneously by the tens of thousands at each rally site almost day by day, the pink wave – Robredo’s campaign color – is signifying what a new era could be: cutting off the repetitive politics of the old and seeing the emergence of good governance from the ground up.
As never before, supporters have been enthusiastically pooling their money, buying food to share, organizing free transportation and doing anything else that comes via their own devices. They wave witty placards mocking the status quo, they paint murals, they sing and dance to anthems for love of country, they assemble with discipline to call for all demographics to come join their bandwagon.
Largely driven by youthful volunteers who make up the bulk of the voters, this new generation is bringing shape to a movement bursting with artistic and cultural creativity, an unprecedented display of political demonstration without the Molotov cocktails. The cream of the crop in the showbiz industry – the staple of life for a Filipino majority – are lining up on stage to bet on Robredo, risking their careers.
As in 1986, it is the dominant Catholic church that called for action. Church leaders are standing behind the Robredo candidacy, breaking a tradition of electoral neutrality. The stakes are too high, they said. The Christian cult Iglesia ni Cristo, which claims 2.2 million followers, has endorsed Marcos, but its many of younger followers have rebelled, saying they will vote for Robredo.
And bit by bit, even local executives too are joining the fray, something turncoats normally do after the elections, not before. The business sector has likewise made it clear that Robredo’s policies are far more inviting to a healthy economic recovery than her rival’s. More recent is the Muslim party running the autonomous region in the south pledging support.
This is what Marcos Jr., for all his ability to put up the mirage of his father’s memory, does not have. He tries to show that he is beyond that, refusing to join presidential debates that he says serve no purpose. A week before the polls, Robredo challenged him to a one-on-one and still he wouldn’t budge, triggering the hashtag “coward.” His lead, money and resources are padded by the fact that his running mate is the daughter of the incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte.
There is no more time to play around with the complexities of the future in a country that swings back and forth between the norms of democracy and the toxicity of populism. There is more of a chaotic risk in handing power to Marcos, the only son of the late dictator who ruled for 20 years of political oppression and economic collapse, just to satisfy the curiosity of his millions of Facebook followers as to what he is capable of.
Marcos Jr is a far cry from his father’s demagogic brilliance judging from his mediocre performance in the Senate, and at the two universities he attended, but he carries the serpents of the family’s entitlement over a country that has allowed them to do as they wish. No Marcos has ever been within the walls of a prison despite the numerous cases of plunder. Marcos Jr himself has been convicted of tax evasion, yet the Commission on Elections dismissed that fact to nullify his disqualification in the presidential race.
A Marcos win would be an extension of President Duterte’s discombobulated reign, a six-year term that could lead to a failed state. Marcos Jr was able to ride on Duterte’s polarizing aggression, with the president’s troll farm wiping away every trace of normal political discourse. Duterte says nothing about Marcos Jr’s candidacy, but he wants his daughter Sara to win the vice presidency.
“Social media is a poison to democracy,” said Robredo’s spokesman Ibarra Gutierrez, believing that “without the barrage of disinformation, Leni is the winner.” She who rose from the ranks, unheard of in Philippine politics replete with dynastic families; she coming from the middle class, a lawyer and development worker, joining politics after her late husband, who was a city mayor, died in an air accident.
She knew that without the backing of the administration, which vilified her, and without the resources of a political party (she is running independently, also untraditional in Philippine politics), she could derive instead support from a people’s campaign, evidenced by the massive turnout her rallies have drawn, more than what her own campaign organizers have dreamed of.
The mammoth rallies show a counterweight not only to the looming threat of a Marcos revival but also to the destructive nature of Duterte’s politics.
Many have said we had the 1986 revolution miraculously easy when we massed on the capital’s main avenue as if it was a picnic. The spirit of those days came rushing back in the atmosphere in Robredo’s campaign with as much anxiety and excitement to the nail-biting uncertainty of the voting’s outcome on May 9.
Our generation has known no other kind of revolution.
If Robredo wins, Filipinos will expect her to move mountains in the way her office performed in the pandemic when she offered help all around, accomplishing more than the national government. Her simple but crucial programs for transparency and accountability, if implemented writ large, would in themselves be revolutionary – and that would be a first time.
Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning author and journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. Her latest book is The Battle of Maravi, reviewed here.