Candidates Philippine elections
Presidential contenders: (Clockwise from top left) Leody de Guzman, Francis "Isko" Moreno, Ferdinand "Bongbong" R. Marcos Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo, Ernesto Abella, Panfilo "Ping" Lacson, and Norberto Gonzales. Image Credit: Gulf News


  • Dwelling on the “sins” of the Marcoses fails to chip away from Marcos Jr's lead, say pundits.
  • Class D and E are among Marcos Jr’s top supporters so far, say pollsters.
  • The opposition's key campaign themes — competence, integrity — are not hard to sell, one-on-one campaign by volunteers is key.
  • The ground has shifted in Manila in opposition’s favour, says poll.
  • A mathematician says a Leni Robredo victory over Marcos Jr "is very possible", with only minor tactical changes.

[This forms part of the Gulf News series on the upcoming Philippine general elections, to be held on May 9, 2022]

MOST Filipinos know Eraserheads, the Beatles of the Philippines. Most are also familiar with the rock band Rivermaya, and pop diva Kuh Ledesma.

They’re all campaigning for Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, 54, the opposition’s standard-bearer.

Rapper Andrew E, erstwhile superstar Nora Aunor and action star Robin Padilla (also a senatorial candidate) are doing their bit to get votes for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, 64, and his “uniteam”.

Festive events define the campaign season in this country of 110 million, of which about 67 million are registered voters. On May 9, they will pick President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor. Robredo is the only woman in a 10-way race. The stars and singers help pull huge crowds to her campaign sorties. That’s good news for her campaign.

The bad news: Up until January, most voter polls show Robredo garnering only about 23%. Marcos Jr, also known as “BBM”, is way ahead, with at least 50%. It's a yawning gap. But while surveys are scientific, campaigns can be notoriously unpredictable, as we'll explain below.

Why is the Philippine opposition trailing? Following are some of the reasons and fixes cited by political pundits:

(1) Scattered, deeply divided opposition

This is the biggest problem. This failure to unite, is the biggest plus so far for the Marcos camp. There are 10 presidential candidates (including boxing champ-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, former Senator Ping Lacson, and Robredo). Surveys up until January (published in February), however, show Bongbong gets the lion’s share of voter preference.

In the first week of January 2022, WR Numero Research’s poll shows as much as 58.9% of voters preferred Marcos Jr: an unprecedented position for a front-runner.

The lack of real, unified opposition is a product of the country’s weak party system, said Louie Montemar, a political sociologist at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP).

Louie Montemar
Image Credit: Gulf News

Another problem: Duterte, in his usual unorthodox style, has not endorsed anyone. So there’s really no well-defined ruling party candidate. But when he ran in 2016, Duterte was also training at No. 4 until March 2016.

Personalities, dynasties
▶ Families and personalities, instead of the party, dominate Philippine politics. For example, Duterte’s daughter Sara, 43, is running for vice president under the banner of Marcos Jr., who himself is the namesake of former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. They belong to different parties.

▶ A 2014 study done by the Department of Politics in New York University indicated that an estimate 50-70% of all politicians are involved or associated in a political dynasty within the Philippines, including local government units.

▶ Example: The Philippine Senate, which has only 24 Senate seats, tends to be dominated by only a few families.

▶ So, if Allan Peter Cayetano wins the May 9 senate race, he joins his sister Pia in the chamber. If former VP Jejomar Binay also wins a senate seat, he joins his daughter Nancy; if Mark Villar wins, he joins his mother Cynthia.

▶ That's a quarter of a chamber that's supposed to embody the national spirit, but ring-fenced by 3 families.

But upsets are still possible, given the two-month run of the campaign period.

(2) Messaging

In recent days, the opposition has injected much dynamism, with progressively bigger, livelier crowd size in their campaign sorties. “There’s a strong spirit of volunteerism,” said Montemar. “The momentum is there. It draws strong support from young people."

He said translating that support into one-on-one ‘conversion’ drives would make a huge difference. "It (high degree of volunteerism) is their strength, but it’s also their weakness,” Montemar pointed out to Gulf News.

Messaging, too, should change, as this is where one of the real battles. For example, Montemar said, instead of bashing the front-runner Marcos Jr for his family’s past “sins”, the opposition campaign must level up.

“What she (Robredo) has done, what she can offer… her platform, these are her upsides. Stressing on the downside of Marcos as ‘magnanakaw’ (thief) doesn’t go well with voters. Whoever is running the opposition’s PR campaign should stick to their core message. But with too many volunteer groups, it’s hard to coordinate, even harder to control. Currently, it’s a to-each-his-own.”

Ronald D. Holmes, assistant professor of Political Science at De La Salle University, agrees: "The Vice President's (Robredo) camp came out with the theme at the beginning of the year — 'Gobyernong tapat, angat buhay lahat' (translation 'An honest government uplifts everyone'). If it (her numbers), are not changing, there’s a need for the campaign team to change the message. Whether that change in messaging should come about now, and what the message should be, that’s something we can leave to the campaign team to decide on,” Holmes told local media.

Image Credit: Gulf News

(3) Culture

For Filipinos, family comes first. This presents a mismatch between local culture and the democratic forms inherited from the US, its last colonial master. Unlike American-style political culture, which puts a premium in individual liberties, adversarial and conflictual, Filipinos tend to avoid conflict and criticism, said Montemar.

“It’s a cultural thing,” said Montemar.

“The Filipino family, culturally, is authoritarian. In general, Filipinos accept democracy as a theoretical construct and a romantic ideal — but still have a fundamental cultural tendency toward authoritarianism,” said Montemar, citing a study a 1989 study conducted by Prof. Patricia B. Licuanan, who explored post-EDSA Revolution politics.

It’s one reason why Filipino are able to endure, understand, even extoll hardship under an autocratic or authoritarian set-up.

“That’s why the Duterte-style governance stands out. He scored a landslide victory in 2016. It’s not about what he says, it’s about what he does,” Montemar said. In the current campaign, Marcos Jr’s has largely inherited the narrative of his father being a doer, as someone who can get things done, he pointed out.

Philippine election numbers
Image Credit: Gulf News

(4) Social media

The opposition came late in the social media game. “It’s algorithmically driven, motivated by ad revenues. Posts with the high user engagement get promoted algorithmically on the platform,” said Montemar.

It’s a well-planned, long-term plan,” said Montemar, said who specialises in political dynamics and elections. “It’s a numbers game, whether it’s to create depth or semblance of crowd sourcing. This can be organic, this can be faked.”

The Marcos camp have had at least 10 years of headway on social media, said Montemar.

Amid a war of narratives, the camp that made an early start on social media gets the upper hand. One result: A decimated Liberal Party in the 2016 general and 2019 mid-term elections. Social media, rife with disinformation, is major battleground in any elections going forward.

A December 2021 Social Weather Stations survey, 69% of adult Filipinos believe that the problem of fake news in media is serious, but that 51% of Filipinos find it difficult to spot fake news.

(5) Limited success

Despite the weak party system, there emerged a pseudo opposition in this campaign season. “1Sambayan” (One Nation) movement is composed of groups from the Left, former junior military officers, civil society, sectoral party list groups, provincial politicians, and the Liberal Party (LP), the country’s ruling party from 2010 to 2016 LP was beaten badly in 2016 and 2019 polls.

1Sambayan is the closest to what amounts to opposition, the main anti-Duterte camp.

But it has also shown poorly in the latest polls. “We have discussed this, again and again, and this is the understanding of everybody: That unless we are united, we cannot win in 2022,” said retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who founded the group alongside former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario.

They’re not politicians; rather, they’re prominent public servants who have long been critical of the Duterte government. The group opposes extrajudicial killings, political dynasties and promotes protection of human rights.

(6) Volunteer vs traditional “brokers”

Brokers are the go-between that connects voters with politicians. The ground reality is that Marcos Jr and his running mate, Sara Duterte, enjoy strong support both in the country’s north and the south, with equally strong support from traditional brokers.

Chipping away at the voter preference enjoyed by Marcos Jr — with a 44-point lead over Robredo in the January 19-24 survey — is a tough act. SWS surveys have correctly predicted the winners of the past two elections (2010 and 2016). Surveys offer feedback, Heydarian pointed out.

Robredo’s numbers in the National Capital Region, has greatly improved such that she’s overtaken Marcos Jr in greater Manila, or at least they are now statistically.

Surveys can be wrong at predicting the true voter preference. We have seen too many upsets, especially in recent times, where the electoral outcomes defied the industry’s prediction.

- Dr Guido David, Professor of Mathematics, the University of the Philippines and OCTA researcher

Heydarian agrees, citing the same survey data. “It (Marcos Jr’s lead) is not a prohibitive situation,” said Heydarian, “as the variability (of undecided voters) is still quite high.”

Variability refers to the number of voters who have an initial preference, but still remain undecided. Heydarian points to survey data (comparison between two previous surveys) which show a 10% variability for Marcos Jr. in most polls taken in January.

This is where a hoped-for spike in the pro-opposition sentiment comes in.  

On March 6, 2022, Dr Guido David, a Professor of Mathematics at the University of the Philippines, twitted this image from the Marcos camp, and wrote: "Surveys can be wrong at predicting the true voter preference. We have seen too many upsets, especially in recent times, where the electoral outcomes defied the industry’s prediction."

"At least 6 surveys/polls point to a BBM (Marcos Jr's) victory by a large margin. Each of these surveys is based on a sample size of between 1,500 to 2,400 respondents only. Statisticians generally concur that this sample size is enough to represent the voting population. Except for one of the polls, most were done in January. Thus, these polls may have largely failed to capture changing preferences in February."

50 M

social media data points used as the basis for voter pulse analysis by mathematician Dr Guido David

David added: "We believe it is possible to get a better 'pulse'. Using more than 50 million social data points, our analysis reveals a much tighter race. A Leni victory over BBM is very possible, with only minor tactical changes needed from Leni’s campaign team."

A Marcos campaign rally (below) in Cavite, Philippines.

(7) Potential game-changers

Pundits point to a number of possible “game-changers” that may chip off Marcos Jr’s lead.

>> I: The Isko Moreno factor

Among Marcos Jr’s supporters, Manila Mayor “Isko Moreno” Domagoso is the top second choice, ahead of Senator Manny Pacquaio, though they are tied with 8% on Pulse Asia survey.

If Mayor Isko's numbers go up, by converting the Marcos Jr “overlap” to Moreno’s side, that could potentially change the dynamics, according to Heydarian.

However, this is a long shot, explained Holmes, who said: “Isko with 8% (of voter preference) would really be the recipient of most of the votes of people who said that they will vote for either Bongbong or Vice President Robredo. But in the event that these two would not run, they would pick Mayor Isko.”

>> II: Hitting the right tone

Holmes explains the reason why Marcos Jr. dominates the lower socio-economic classes (50% to 61% preference among the C, D and E voter categories). “The message of Bongbong cuts across these socio-economic classes. Despite what was believed to be the equity of masses of Manny Pacquiao or Isko Moreno supporters, it’s the message of Bongbong that seems to get the attention and support from C, D and E socio-economic classes. They form the majority of voters.” Robredo has achieved parity with or even slightly ahead of Marcos Jr in Metro Manila.

Below, a drone shot of an Robredo-led opposition campaign rally in the Philippines.

>> III: The power of volunteers 

Robredo counts strong support among professionals — lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, artists, the LGBTQ crowd. These are potentially strong brokers in helping convert the undecided voters, said Montemar. “If they carefully craft a smart message, engage more in one-on-one campaigns, highlight their candidate’s qualities, benefits of good governance, instead of putdowns on Marcos Jr for his family’s ‘sins’, these are potential game changers,” he added.

“Money, when used as a campaign weapon, can only assure you a certain number of votes, and can actually be overturned by a higher bidder,” he said.

Volunteerism, however, has a potent power, Montemar said. “It is built on deep loyalty. You can’t change it overnight. In my view, Robredo’s real advantage lies in this volunteerism. This is what would win the vote for her.”

It means hard work. Notably, Holmes admitted that his agency’s survey published on February 14, 2022 excluded the higher social classes. “Among the randomly selected respondents, none could qualify as class A/B,” Holmes explained.

If Robredo, through her “brokers” from the A/B crowd, gains another 10% to 15% to reach 30% to 35% survey rating — this could change the whole equation, Heydarian pointed out.

With two full months of campaigning left, it’s the undecided that may finally hold sway in the 2022 vote.

In the Philippine context, they are people who serve as middlemen between voters and politicians. They could be local or provincial politicians who are the link of the people to the national leaders.

Political sociologist Louie Montemar explains that brokers also include street-level campaigner who can ensure votes, in return for a general, vaguely defined — or real — benefits.

“You need these brokers all over the country. These are the people who campaign for you, convince people to vote for you. They deliver your message. They can be Barangay (village) or zone-level campaigners. This is the strength of the opposition, Robredo’s camp has people’s councils in towns, provinces and cities.”