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Philippines' Presidential Sweepstakes Take Shape
Departure of Duterte crony Bong Go clarifies the muddle
Making sense of the convolutions so far among the candidates in the Philippine presidential election leads to one conclusion: that there has been spirited maneuvering between the Duterte and Marcos/Romualdez camps, with the Arroyo and Estrada camps also playing significant supporting roles. But the bottom line in all this is that all are united in the desire to keep Leni Robredo from changing the game and bringing a sense of law-based government back to Malacañang.
Indeed, the curious role of Duterte himself, at first planning to run for vice president, then retreating to a senate seat while promoting the candidacy of his longtime adviser and operative Christopher “Bong” Go, can be seen as a way of keeping his options open. His main focus may well be on ensuring that his successor (and the Senate not attempt to indict him, whether for his promotion of extra-judicial drug and other killings, or for the alleged treasonous surrender of Philippines rights in the West Philippine Sea to China.
Duterte must have known that Go was never a credible candidate, lacking media image, dynastic connections, and charisma of any sort. He has now served his purpose and quit the race, apparently giving renewed strength to the hopes of Ferdinand Marcos Jnr (Bongbong). The latter’s organizational strength and solid core of support had already dissuaded Sara Duterte from making her own run for president, teaming up with her would-be rival.
Duterte’s support of Bong Go was largely seen as indicating a family rift, but may well have been a feint, the president himself sensing that without an alliance with Bongbong, the chances of Robredo winning would be much greater. Bongbong had also supported Duterte in the 2016 election. So, however poorly he viewed Bongbong, seen as lacking leadership skills as well as probably having an association with drugs, the overriding need was to keep power within the Marcos/Duterte/Arroyo group.
In addition to the history of several from this group benefiting from the illicit spoils of office, they also sang from the same pro-China song sheet, downplaying Beijing’s continuing acts of aggression against Philippine rights in the West Philippine Sea, as attested by the 2016 decision against China in the Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The exit of Go from the contest leaves three other contenders in addition to Robredo. Whether they stay in the field or which way they jump if they lead the contest could now be decisive. The most significant is Manila mayor Francisco Domogoso, better known as Isko Moreno, a media figure turned successful and high-profile mayor. He is now hoping for Duterte’s endorsement but seems unlikely to get it even though he has mostly supported the president, including for Duterte’s drug war. He may have the appeal as competent and non-dynast but would seem to lack the flair and notoriety which took Duterte from Davao mayor to president in 2016.
It is at present hard to predict whether, if Isko stays in the race, he will hurt Marcos more than Robredo. Famous boxer Senator Manny Pacquiao will continue to get plenty of popular support as recognition for his poor background and mighty achievements and if he stays in the ring can take votes from Bongbong/Duterte especially in Mindanao, his home territory.
The final candidate of any substance is Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, now 73, whose reputation as a ruthless chief of police under Estrada was modified by years as an effective senator, membership of Noynoy Aquino’s government, and latterly critic of pork barrel politics and the Duterte’s administration’s involvement in the Pharmally scandal, in which middlemen tied to Duterte crony Michael Yang earned billions off Covid-19 supplies.
But Lacson was also the author of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Law, seen by critics as illiberal and divisive, and was suspected of complicity in the murder of a critic of Estrada in 2000. He was forced to flee to Hong Kong for 15 months before he was cleared after a witness to the crime was declared ‘not credible.’
A lot can and will happen in the six months of campaigning. Marcos is clearly the frontrunner in using social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok to promote himself, re-write the dubious history of his family’s ill-gotten wealth and his father’s autocracy, while constantly deriding Robredo. However, his conviction for criminal violation of the tax code, which should make him ineligible for public office, will be a burden even though unlikely to disbar him. Law in the Philippines is a flexible and political instrument.
Robredo, however, is showing she is no pushover, her campaign, associated with the color pink, has attracted much dedicated support from the likes of schoolteachers, lawyers, and NGO activists and just might become a bandwagon built on her reputation for honesty, steady demeanor, and lack of association with dynasts and money scandals.
But big money will be needed as the campaigns move ahead with television and radio remaining key sources of news which may be more influential than social media in influencing voters. The biggest corporations will spread their money around so the Marcos/Duterte axis may not be at much of an advantage. Much of the Manila business elite dislikes Duterte and generally favors the middle-of-the-road Liberal party represented by Robredo and her running mate, Senator Francis Pangilinan. As for those voters not influenced by local loyalties, such as Marcos in Ilocos, what they will need to decide is if they want a continuation of autocratic tendencies and known dynasts or see in Robredo a different type of leadership.
In any event, the country will continue to suffer from an electoral system based entirely on personalities and without a run-off vote between the top two candidates.