When, late last year, Lula da Silva clawed the Brazilian presidency from far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, halfway around the world the still-grieving supporters of defeated Philippine opposition candidates wondered how Brazil pulled it off.
Just a few months prior, they tried to do the same - displace a violent populist with anger issues, although in their case he was named Rodrigo Duterte. Ultimately, it was Bongbong Marcos who won the crowded 10-way fight for the presidency, with former vice president Leni Robredo coming second and trade unionist Leody De Guzman finishing up a distant 8th. If the Marcos name sounds familiar, it should be: the new president is the son of disgraced kleptocratic dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled the country for two decades under a repressive and bloody martial law.
The historic 31 million votes cast last May for the 64-year-old Bongbong - Ferdinand Marcos Jr, to give him his full name - blindsided the martial law generation who thought they would never, in their lifetime, see another Marcos in the presidential palace. But they were wrong.
“I will admit, we made a lot of mistakes as far as fighting disinformation is concerned,” Robredo told her Filipino supporters in the United States, where she recently toured for a series of speeches and the start a Harvard fellowship.
With Joe Biden’s win in the US two years ago, followed by Lula’s in Brazil, and the unprecedented showing of dissent in places like mainland China, the crushing of the Philippine opposition is a stinging rebuke to a nation which, 36 years ago, showed the world how to win democracy. In 1986, after 20 years of dictatorship, Filipinos took to the streets - backed by the Catholic Church and rogue soldiers - and forced the dictator Marcos and his family to flee the Palace and escape to Hawaii. It has since become a model around the world for peaceful revolutions.
The soul-searching on the part of defeated candidates is understandable and necessary. But even more so than in Brazil, the odds were stacked against them. Even the Philippines’ political design makes opposition a blur. Without a two-party system, there never was a clear opposition in the country.
Some would describe Philippine politics as multi-party, but it is, to its core, dynastic: families with deep political roots holding power for decades. The Philippines is a country where a married and committed couple can become representatives of two different districts just by registering in different places of residence.
The Marcoses are the prime examples of that - Marcos Jr is the president, his sister Imee is a senator, his son Sandro is a representative. Two cousins are also representatives, his nephew is a governor, a cousin-in-law is the vice governor, and another cousin is a mayor.
Little surprise, then, that voters do not vote for values in the Philippines, but for a surname. Philippines’ former liberal president, the late Benigno Aquino III was himself part of a dynasty: the only son of former president Corazon Aquino, who is the symbol of the restoration of democracy in 1986, and her husband and former senator Beningo Aquino Jr, who was shot and killed at the airport tarmac upon return from the United States where he was exiled by the dictator Marcos.
“Our political contest is always people vs dynasties. Dynasties can appropriate the ideological lines. Like the Liberal Party, they were at one point progressive then suddenly when they were in power they were fiscal conservatives,” political scientist Michael Yusingco tells The Lead.
Marcos’s campaign avoided tangible issues, ignored invitations to debates, and stonewalled critical journalists. His only promise was unity - whatever that was. Apart from that, he flip-flopped and dilly-dallied on any ideological questions: divorce, gay marriage, abortion. So can he be actually called a right-wing populist?
“He can’t be characterised as conservative because he’s for taxation, huge debt, but you can’t say he’s progressive because he’s pro-business,” Yusingco says. “It’s not worthwhile to put him in a mold. When I look at him, I see a dynastic politician who wants to keep himself in power, who wants to keep his family in power at all costs. He can dress up as a conservative, he can dress up as a liberal, and that’s the problem.”
The Philippines is a colonised country that ranks high on the world’s worst lists - widest inequality, poorest education, most unsafe for journalists, and just recently, the dubious prestige of implementing one of the world’s longest lockdowns.
And the opposition, already structurally weak, is crushed and fragmented.
The left and the moderate liberals are a fragile alliance who always manage to pick a fight in any given election, the last one potentially being the most costly fight.
A faction of the left fielded socialist union leader Leody De Guzman for the presidency, resulting in nasty implosions within the ranks that bolstered Marcos’ unity message even more.
In Brazil, by contrast, Lula secured the endorsement of a center-right alternative who said she was taking the unlikely stance "for my love for Brazil, for democracy and for the constitution.”
Kit Belmonte, a liberal politician, says he believes the fragmentation of the opposition played a role in Robredo’s loss.
“Lula and Biden’s victories were boosted by previous opponents banding together with them. They all knew that there was a common bigger enemy, and the fight was much larger than themselves and their own self-interest,” Belmonte tells The Lead.
De Guzman says Marcos won because his machinery and the disinformation infrastructure that benefited him were the final ingredients to a stew of decades-long discontent.
“Trolls were effective because one level of what they were saying was true - that those who replaced the dictator Marcos did nothing, from Cory to Fidel V. Ramos to Joseph Estrada,” says De Guzman.
The Philippine ideological left, meanwhile, has been even less successful. They have not won a single seat in the Senate since joining the electoral process post-dictatorship, making the presidency seem like a moonshot.
“Political maturity of our electorate is still low, and it’s because people think of survival, not the nation’s future - where to get food, where to get money to pay the bill,” De Guzman says. “Filipinos are also big on debt of gratitude. If they receive money from a politician, they’d vote for him even though they could still vote according to conscience. There’s also a deep culture of idolising the rich and famous. It’s like an aspiration, they’d think I hope I’m like that, famous and rich, instead of being angry because of their excessive wealth.”
Robredo said in her US speeches that she’s not closing her doors to a remote possibility she may again run for president. “I wouldn’t say no anymore, if there’s any lesson from my years as a public servant, when there is a call for you to serve, you answer the call,” she said at an Asia Society talk. She now runs an NGO that continues the anti-poverty programs of her old Office of the Vice President.
Belmonte is optimistic that the volunteerism in Robredo’s campaign “is a gift from the people that we can carry moving forward.”
“Honestly, I don’t want to run anymore, I’m okay with the groundwork I started when I ran for president,” says De Guzman. By the time the next election comes around, in 2028, he will be 69.
But with Marcos’ popularity, few signs of reconciliation among opposition factions, and the age-old problems of dynastic politics, it’s hard to tell how any of them can stand a chance - and the Philippines' right-wing turn may now become a settled, long-term trend.
Yusingco says maybe the voters need to self-reflect, too. Inflation, combined with market corruption and extreme weather events, hit the Philippines so hard that it’s now a luxury to afford an onion. Some of the supporters of the opposition gloated, if not blamed, the voters of Marcos whose demographic belongs to the poorest.
“Are we approaching deepening our democracy the wrong way when we engage in divisive tactics and interactions among ourselves where we blame each other? That’s not going to deepen our democracy,” says Yusingco.
“Right now we’re all in the same boat. Stop blaming each other, focus on the Marcos government,” he suggests.
And when you do, De Guzman adds, said to change the strategy. “Get the 31 million, and you won’t get them by blasting Marcos, you get them by talking about the issues like rising cost of onions, or unemployment. Let them realise that the pains they are feeling are caused by the people they support.”
“You can’t tell them they voted wrong.. Tthey should tell themselves that,” says De Guzman.
Lian Buan is a senior multimedia reporter with Rappler.com. You can read more of her work here.