Author: Ronald D Holmes, De La Salle University
A Philippine commentator described Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr’s victory as overwhelming. This is apt based on the current vote count. Bongbong will be the first president after the 1986 political transition to be elected by a majority of voters in a plurality electoral system. He takes on the presidency with an unequivocal mandate that even outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte did not have.
Bongbong’s victory testifies to an effective rebranding of his persona. The rebranding was actively prosecuted on social media and started with stories in various social media platforms that glorified martial law and refuted narratives about the family’s ill-gotten wealth. The rebranding was abetted by Duterte’s decision to bury Bongbong’s father — the late dictator — in the National Heroes’ Cemetery. This affirmed the imagined heroism of the dead despot, a historical distortion Marcos Sr peddled in the early 1960s as he prepared to vie for the presidency in 1965.
Bongbong successfully projected himself as an anti-populist with his oft-repeated message of unity that inspired hope among a public that hankered for a recovery after a debilitating pandemic.
The alliance between the Dutertes and the Marcoses could also be credited for the Bongbong landslide. While Duterte called Bongbong a weak leader and spoiled child in November 2016, the scathing critique did not dent Bongbong’s voting support as he was already paired up at the time with his running mate Sara Duterte, Rodrigo’s daughter. Bongbong’s pre-election support reached majority in December 2021.
Bongbong’s support significantly increased across all sub-national areas, but the largest increase was in the major island that is regarded as Duterte country — Mindanao. From 8 per cent of Mindanawon voters expressing support for him in September 2021; that soared to 64 per cent in December 2021. Bongbong’s partnership with Sara proved extremely beneficial, as he was able to sustain such level of support in Mindanao until election day, and even in the Bisayan-speaking Central Visayas region where the Duterte name continues to draw substantial support.
Bongbong and Sara’s victory can be attributed to the weakness of the opposition. The weakness of the opposition, and Bongbong’s main challenger outgoing vice president Leni Robredo, were partly Duterte’s doing. The populist Duterte constantly hit on the alleged deficiencies and abuses of the immediate past administration of the late president, Benigno S Aquino III. Duterte called Robredo incompetent and unfit to be president. Robredo herself has been the main target of disinformation across her term and in the months leading up to the election.
The unwillingness of the opposition to counter false narratives contributed to the decline in the support for it. Robredo’s approval and trust ratings incrementally declined within her term due to the attacks from Duterte and his legion of social media influencers. Robredo admitted this herself first in 2019, and most recently when she said: ‘When I started my term, I was too naive about how powerful social media was or how powerful social media was going to be, that I did not do enough’.
But the biggest failure of the mainstream opposition was its inability to pass institutional reforms when they had the chance, in particular under Aquino III. Such reforms include the legislation of a freedom of information act, the political party development act and the decriminalisation of libel.
Several days after the 9 May 2022 elections, attention has focused on the decisions that the presumptive president, Bongbong will take. So far, he has announced that his running mate Sara has accepted the education portfolio, even though she preferred to be appointed defence secretary.
In his conversation with US President Joe Biden, Bongbong assured him that the Philippines would always hold the United States in ‘high regard as friend, an ally and a partner’. While the congratulatory message of Chinese president Xi Jinping was hand-delivered by the Chinese ambassador, Bongbong has yet to respond publicly.
Unlike his running mate Sara, who has urged her supporters to reach out to those who backed her opponents, Bongbong has not uttered a word that affirms his commitment to fulfill his campaign message of unity. The delay in constituting his cabinet and in issuing key policy pronouncements reflects how unprepared Bongbong is to lead the country. Despite an overwhelming victory, Bongbong underwhelms.
Ronald D Holmes is Professor of Political Science and Development Studies at De La Salle University and President of Pulse Asia Research Inc. The views expressed in this article are solely the views of the author and the author alone.
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