“Authoritarian nostalgia”: the Philippines seems ready to bring Marcoses back to power | Philippines

The color they wear is an unmistakable shade of fuchsia pink. They roam the streets of the Philippines, waving banners along the way and arresting anyone who wants to listen.

Many are young or first-time voters, and some travel for hours to join campaign teams. For them, next week’s election is a watershed moment for their country.

“I really want change,” says Mariel Ramirez, 35, a first-time voter who is among those campaigning.

The impact of the pandemic on the poorest and the prospect of the return to power of one of the country’s most controversial families – the Marcos – spurred her to action.

“It’s so obvious that a [Marcos] the presidency would really bring the country to its lowest point,” Ramirez said. “It’s a family that just keeps getting richer.”

Kakampinks (pink allies), as supporters of Leni Robredo are known, take part in a rally in Metro Manila in March. Photography: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

There are only days left before more than 67 million Filipinos vote for their next president in a highly controversial election.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, known as ‘Bongbong’ or BBM and son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is leading opinion polls – despite his late father’s notorious record of corruption and rights abuses.

Leni Robredo and his army of nearly 2 million volunteers, known as the Kakampinks (pink allies), attempt to stop Macros Jr.

Robredo, a human rights lawyer who has defended disadvantaged groups and is the current vice president, is in second place in the polls by a significant margin. In an election where online misinformation is rife, his supporters have launched an unusually large door-to-door effort.

In Sampaloc, a disadvantaged district of Manila, some residents are receptive. Josie Loyola, 70, sits outside her house in the morning sun, smiles as she sees the activists passing by.

“She’s got a good heart, she’s got a lot of accomplishments,” Loyola says of Robredo. But she lowers her voice when she talks about Marcos Jr:[He] is really questionable, it has questionable integrity.

She worries about political instability or a repeat of the martial law imposed by Marcos Sr in 1972.

Human rights violations were commonplace during the nine-year period of martial law: 3,240 people were killed, while tens of thousands more were tortured and imprisoned, according to Amnesty International.

Leni Robredo, center right, waves to supporters during her campaign rally in Cavite province, south of Manila, on May 1.
Leni Robredo waves to supporters during her campaign rally in Cavite province, south of Manila, on May 1. Photograph: Basilio Sepe/ZUMA Press/REX/Shutterstock

Loyola’s son, who is crouched next to a tub of soapy water, remains focused on cleaning his motorbike. He’s undecided, he said. Not everyone wants to talk. A few doors down, images of a smiling Marcos Jr, holding his hand in peace, are pasted on a house.

36 years ago, the People Power revolution ended Marcoses’ 20-year rule, forcing the family to flee into exile.

They fled by helicopter, stashing items worth $15m (£12m) on board, including gold bars, freshly printed money and hundreds of jewellery.

It was a small change from overall estimates of the family’s ill-gotten wealth. Some suggest as much as £8billion was looted from the family.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr, and his second wife, Imelda, watch as thousands of university students undergo compulsory military training in Manila in 1985.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr and his wife, Imelda, watch university students go through compulsory military training in Manila in 1985. Photography: Roméo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

Marcos Sr died in 1989, but the rest of the family was allowed to return to the Philippines in the 1990s and he has slowly renamed himself ever since.

“Our democratic transition has not gone through a transitional justice process – unlike other countries that have gone through political or civil conflict,” says Julio Teehankee, professor of political science and international studies at the University of The Manila Room.

Instead, the Marcos were warmly welcomed by the powerful, Teehankee says. “The elites of society, the circles, embraced them and treated them like celebrities.”

The family began to re-establish its position in politics and cement allegiances. In 2016, Marcos Sr received a hero’s funeral with full military honors on the recommendation of President Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos survivors were appalled and warned that the story was whitewashed. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, is Marcos Jr.’s running mate.

Observers say the failure of the Philippine education system to properly discuss the reality of Marcos rule has created a gap in public knowledge, especially among younger generations, which Marcos Jr’s camp has exploited.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, far right, watches his father, far left, deliver a speech from the balcony of Malacanang Palace in Manila on February 25, 1986
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, far right, watches his father, far left, deliver a speech from the balcony of Malacañang Palace in Manila in 1986. Photography: Alberto Marquez/AP

Online social media accounts linked to or supporting the Marcos downplay the dictatorship and seek to justify or even deny past abuses by spreading misinformation.

They present the Marcos years as a golden era: a time when the economy was booming; when the infrastructure was developed; and there was peace and order. Human rights violations and kleptocracy are brushed aside.

Celica Inductivo, 35, who lives opposite Loyola, stands over a simmering pot, preparing lunch for her family as volunteers pass. She will vote for Marcos Jr, she said.

During martial law, if you were a decent citizen, you had nothing to fear, his mother, who was a volunteer for Marcos Sr. Inductivo, told him he doesn’t believe his son is corrupt and admires him for being raised above such comments.

Supporters of Ferdinand Marcos Jr cheer during a campaign rally in San Fernando, Pampanga Province, Philippines.
Supporters of Ferdinand Marcos Jr cheer during a campaign rally in San Fernando, Pampanga Province, Philippines. Photograph: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

“Despite the various criticisms against BBM, as [the claim he is a] thief, he doesn’t defend himself,” she says, using the now popular abbreviation Bongbong Marcos.

He has been criticized for not attending presidential debates and for dodging embarrassing questions from the media, including about his non-payment of a tax bill whichaccording to local reports, could amount to more than £3.1 billion.

Marcos Jr, whose slogan is “Together we will rise again”, stuck to a simple campaign message of unity and rekindling old greatness.

“It’s one of the biggest ironies of this year’s election. The most divisive and polarizing brand of politics in the country’s history has appropriated the message of unity and hope,” says Teehankee.

It may be an easier message to sell. “Authoritarian nostalgia is very simplistic. If you’re frustrated and desperate enough, then it’s easy to believe this campaign rhetoric rather than Robredo’s campaign rhetoric that Filipinos are taking ownership of the country’s problems and helping find solutions,” adds Jean Encinas Franco, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.

Vote published by PulseAsia suggests that 56% of voters would choose Marcos Jr for president, and he remains the most popular candidate among all age groups.

Tens of thousands of people attend a Leni Robredo campaign rally in Cavite province south of Manila on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of people attend a Leni Robredo campaign rally in Cavite province south of Manila on Sunday. Photography: Basilio Sepe/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Still, Franco believes Robredo’s campaign and the large army of supporters it has attracted will have a lasting impact on Philippine politics, regardless of the election outcome.

She points not only to Robredo’s passionate volunteers, but also to the impressive voter turnout at his rallies. The atmosphere of these gatherings is festive, young and full of hope, adds Franco.

“I’ve never seen these kinds of rallies or this kind of support for any type of politician since I started voting,” she says.

“Now there is a critical mass of people. Whoever is the president, he will have to deal with that part of the Filipinos who are actively engaged.

For Ramirez, who has participated in two door-to-door campaigns and attended three rallies, she believes every possible vote counts.

The election could, she said, either move the Philippines forward or “pull us back even further and plunge the country into a state of desperation and massive corruption.”

Whatever happens next week, she says she won’t be silent about politics anymore. “We have so much to lose this time around.”