- With only 67 days left before some 67 million Filipino voters pick President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor, Marcos Jr is way ahead of rivals.
- The Marcoses are back from being pariahs, knocking on the gates of Malacanang Palace.
- Marcos Jr could yet be disqualified, thus paving the way for Leni Robredo to become the Philippines’ third woman president, but the numbers are stacked against her.
Philippines: Dr Karl Peralta, 46, is a respected Filipino surgeon. He believes without question YouTube videos about the tonnes of Marcos gold stashed away in some vault. Story has it that the legendary haul of the yellow metal — supposedly owned by the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr — would finally be given back to the Filipino people.
It's a rather vague promise, amplified on social media. The ultimate goal: catapult Marcos' namesake and only son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, also known as “BBM”, to crush his rivals in the May ballot, and succeed President Rodrigo Duterte.
Dr Peralta (name changed) believes BBM’s victory is a matter of destiny. He is a poster boy for the most well-heeled Filipinos falling for disinformation. There's more to it.
With election day set on May 9, 2022 — 67 days away — this begs the question: what’s his message that resonates well with Filipino voters today?
Political scientists cite 8 reasons why BBM enjoys an unprecedented +50% of voter preference, and why the struggling opposition should care to listen and tweak their campaign:
The “Tallano gold” is part of a bigger narrative to distort history, and burnish the image of Marcoses, through trolls-for-hire armies sustaining a venomous anti-oligarch, and historical distortion campaign. In this free-for-all, trolls can be at the employ of various entities — companies, celebrities, opposition politicians and the government, and trolls trolling trolls. He who's got the deepest pocket gets to convert the most hearts and minds.
The polls overwhelmingly favour Marcos Jr. It shows how the toxic combination of online trolling and the politics of nostalgia have conspired to shape public opinion. The well-respected Pulse Asia shows Marcos Jr. ahead by a wide margin — 53% of the 2,400 respondents picked BBM in January.
The opposition’s standard-bearer, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo (the only female candidate in a 10-way race), is a distant second, at 20%.
It manifests the resentment many Filipinos have towards oligarchic stranglehold over the country's economy in the last 36 years since the EDSA revolt that ousted Marcos Sr, an order which left many poor and disenfranchised. BBM’s numbers have left other camps stumped.
The strongest backers of BBM are not just the well-heeled like Dr Peralta but also the poorest of the poor. It manifests the resentment many Filipinos have towards oligarchic stranglehold over the country's economy in the last 36 years since the EDSA revolt that ousted Marcos Sr.
The anti-oligarch sentiment runs deep. In 2013, the 40 richest families, who control key sectors of the economy, including giant media networks, ring-fenced 76% of newly-created growth, according to one report. There's a perception that this has led to overpriced electricity, poor infrastructure (including slow internet), underinvestment in agriculture, marginalisation of the poor.
In this battle of perceptions, Marcos Jr's new-found form and high numbers have left other camps stumped. Pundits say that if the trend lines continue, with the polling just 67 days away, another Marcos will be in Malacanang Palace, the Asian country’s seat of power.
Yet, even if Marcos Jr does succeed Duterte, no gold will be passed around. Marcos Jr said so himself. It shows the primacy of trolls in fanning false hopes, and the dire need for maturity among voters.
On May 9, 2022, the date for the next general elections, some 67 million voters will pick his successor.
2. A different era
Marcos Sr, who ruled the country for 21 years, was deposed in 1986 in a civilian-backed military coup. In the 2016 general elections, his son BBM lost to Robredo, the current vice president, by a slim margin. In 2016, polling agencies (notably Social Weather Station, or SWS) correctly predicted that Robredo would win.
Marcos protested, but lost in the initial recount of ballots in three provinces which is camp picked for recount. The Php15.44-million peso (About $297,800) cash bond for the recount nearly bankrupted the Robredo family, known for their rather modest means.
In February 2021, the Supreme Court threw out BBM’s electoral protest. But claims of cheating that led to BBM’s defeat didn’t die a natural death. Many kept these claims alive on social media, and within his self-reinforcing silo of followers.
Marcos Jr’s commanding leads in most polls today does not surprise political scientists here. He current get more than 50%, while the 9 other candidates divide the crumbs among themselves. This is the first time anyone had garnered a majority (in 1992, Fidel Ramos only got some 23.5% of the votes). And that’s what makes the 2022 elections different. “The ground has shifted,” said political science professor Richard Heydarian.
BIRTHDAY: 13 September 1957
EDUCATION (based on his Senate website):
> Special Diploma in Social Studies, Oxford University (1975 - 1978)
> Graduate Coursework in Business Administration; Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, USA (1979 - 1981)
LAST POST: Philippine Senator (2010 - 2016)
[His educational background is disputed by fact-checkers]
3. Simple, consistent messaging
The message of Marcos Jr, 64, is simple: Unity. Specifically, unity against the ruling oligarchs. The underlying message: he will unite the country against the forces that kept the country weak and the people poor. “It’s a counter-revolution,” said Prof. Heydarian.
Besides, today’s generation, don’t care much about what happened in the past. The amplified social campaign bolstering the accomplishments of Marcos Sr has also changed the narrative. Their family has gone from being a plunderer (there are still pending cases against Imelda Marcos and Jr himself) to become heralds of national rebirth.
Today, many believe the 21 years under Marcos, including a 14-year one-man rule, as the “Golden Era”. His opponents find it hard to chip away from that perception. Even historians are bewildered at this reversal of narratives. But it shows simple, diligent messaging works. It underscores how mastery of social media gives one unbridled primacy in monetising message, and shaping public perception.
4. Opposition’s negative campaigning backfires
Ferdinand Sr. is known as one of the world’s biggest pillagers. Singapore’s former PM Lee Kuan Yew, used that term — pillage — to describe Marcos. After the latter was deposed, the Philippine government under Cory Aquino announced it had succeeded in identifying $860.8 million squirrelled away by Marcos and his wife Imelda. The total national loss from November 1965 was believed to be $5–$10 billion.
Marcos Jr’s mother Imelda has been sentenced to a minimum of 42 years in jail in 2018. But the country’s weak legal system means those able pay the best lawyers can get away with high crimes.
The narrative today is Filipinos have come to take it as a given that all their politicians steal anyway.
Marcos Jr is the most controversial, and is himself facing numerous cases, including a conviction over a tax-evasion case. He does not attack other candidates. This non-confrontational strategy has paid off, and handsomely.
Instead of differentiating themselves by highlighting their record and capabilities, other candidates have engaged in a pack attack to try and take Marcos Jr down. So far, this tack has failed to chip away his numbers.
The reverse is happening. The opposition has attacked even the the pollsters, too. Political strategists say this is unproductive, and a waste of time.
“Stop attacking the messenger. These polling agencies are legit,” said Prof. Heydarian, policy adviser and chair of geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP).
In 2016, as voting day drew near, Pulse Asia had correctly predicted that Robredo would win, and she did. Since October 2021, data from Pulse Asia surveys show Marcos Jr is way ahead of Robredo.
In mid-January, the SWS survey commissioned by ADR, showed BBM’s numbers are around 50% (up from 43% back in October 2021). Robredo was around 19% to 20%. The numbers show the jump from the previous polls is not significant. “The trend lines are not as good for the opposition, but also not as prohibitive for BBM,” said Heydarian.
5. Nostalgia for strongman
Filipinos long for strong leaders who can deliver. At the same time, a concerted attack on Marcos by other presidential candidates (among them Vice President Robredo, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, former boxing champ Senator Manny Pacquio, Senator Ping Lacson and six others, whose poll numbers are lagging) isn’t helping their case, pundits say.
“The challenge is to differentiate yourself,” said political analyst Tony La Viña. “To be honest, I don’t think attacking Marcos (Jr) will be very useful, for the (opposition) campaign anymore. It’s been done so much. It's really in differentiating yourself from what he stands for and from his record, and differentiating themselves from each other, so that votees will be consolidated on a couple of candidates.”
Prof. Heydarian echoes Prof. La Viña. “The attacks against BBM — with the issue of ‘nakaw’ (ill-gotten wealth) and all of that, it does not resonate as much,” said Heydarian, policy adviser and chair of geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP).
“Yes, people like a leader who is mabait (nice) and compassionate. But,
more importantly, people want a leader who gets things done. That’s why Duterte won, not because he’s really good, but he convinced people that he’s really the guy who gets things done. And that mindset is not going away.”
“If you look at the Pew Research, people are willing to tolerate leaders with authoritarian tendencies if they perceive he can get things done.”
6. Sara Duterte factor
It was unthinkable at first. But President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara (age 43), decided to stand down and contest the vice presidency, instead. Initial polls showed she was even ahead of Marcos Jr in the presidential race. But now, the Mayor of the southern city of Davao, is campaigning for Marcos, whose family has dominated politics in the country’s north for decades.
This amalgamation of political clans from the country’s two most important, vote-rich regions leaves Marcos Jr’s rivals lacking. If Sara wins the vice-presidency, too, then the country could have another woman in its long line of top political posts.
Sara Duterte's pull in Mindano is a huge plus for BBM. If, however, by a stroke of miracle, both Vice President Robredo and Mayor Sara Duterte win the presidency and vice presidency, respectively, it would be historic: and it would be first time ever that a country would have the top two posts taken by women.
Myth-making and appeal to emotions form part of power games. That a great number of Filipinos count on the mythical mountain of gold supposedly handed down to Marcos Sr by a fictional “Tallano Family” (whose gold stash supposedly came all the way from King Solomon), is no mystery.
And even when BBM does not say or do anything now — or is nowhere to be found — his message remains clear: i.e. that the traditional media, the church, the country’s elites and oligarchs are biased against him.
Marcos Jr's deliberate non-appearance in major presidential debates may seem, to many, as a lost opportunity. It's a smart choice. He had already given a number presidential debates a pass. To his supporters, this decision is perfectly understandable, and reinforces the "biased-media" narrative his campaign has cultivated. And no talk means no mistake.
Marcos Jr's repeated claims that he was cheated in 2016, despite his loss in recounts and the final Supreme Court decision, portray him as an underdog. Whether true or not, this emotional appeal resonates well with most voters, and has reinforced voter sympathy for him.
His deliberate non-appearance in major presidential debates may seem, to many, as a lost opportunity. It's a smart choice. He had already given a number presidential debates a pass. To his supporters, this decision is perfectly understandable, and reinforces the "biased-media" narrative his campaign has cultivated. And no talk means no mistake.
Dr. Julio Teehankee, professor of Political Science and International Studies at the De La Salle University, said: “If you’re enjoying 50% — almost 60% — in the surveys, then you can afford to do this.”
This is the biggest straw, and has proven to be the most effective weapon in the resurgence of the Marcos dynasty. It’s been years in the making. And it's textbook case for running a well-oiled campaign. As a result, Tiktok, Facebook and Youtube are now the undisputed kingmakers in the Philippines.
This, together with sustained geo-targetting of Filipino social media users with content favouring Marcos and his family, goes all the way back to at least 2014, according to one study.
Stop attacking the messenger. These polling agencies are legit.
Now, the loot of the Marcoses has been legitimised through repetition of the so-called “Tallano Gold” myth. The heroes of the 1986 EDSA Revolt who ousted Marcos had become the villains, or “traitors”.
Anatomy of disinformation
How does disinformation work in flesh and blood? In September 2020, Facebook took down a network of fake accounts which the social media giant said had ties to the military and the police, President Rodrigo Duterte and his family allies. It was taken down alongside a pro-China fake account network with origins in China.
Graphika, an independent social analytics firm, has found that a Philippines cluster was the “most-engaged with” cluster of assets “by a considerable margin.”
The content, both from pages and from individual accounts, “praised President Duterte and his family allies, notably his daughter, and the daughter of former president Ferdinand Marcos, Senator Imee Marcos.”
The reason for the takedown: it violated Facebook’s policies against “coordinated in-authentic behaviour” — the use of fake accounts, made to look real, in a coordinated campaign to promote messages or a political agenda.
Graphic noted that this network began in 2016 but its Philippines cluster was found to have started in March 2018, growing through 2019 and 2020.
From Facebook, to Youtube, to Tik-Tok
“Disinformation does play a role (in shaping voter preference), especially in the low-income communities,” said De La Salle University Political Scientist Cleve Arguelles.
“Most voters only use free data, unwilling to pay for additional data. So it’s very hard for them to counter-check claims circulating on the internet, given their limited access to actual content, or fact-check sites, for example. That makes them vulnerable to disinformation and fake news”.
Hundreds of pro-Marcos Youtube videos had been fact-checked, and taken down from the popular video sharing platform controlled by US-based Google/Alphabet. The battle has since moved to Tik-tok, owned by China’s ByteDance.