Supporters of both Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo would likely mark a significant departure from incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte's chronic rights abuses. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA – Only months before a high-stakes presidential election, unexpected and increasingly vicious infighting has gripped opposition candidates in the Philippines. In the past few days, salty rhetoric and torrid online exchanges among diehard supporters have embittered once cordial relations between Vice-President Leni Robredo and Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso.

Following her emphatic presidential campaign launch last week, Leni Robredo’s supporters called on Isko to withdraw his candidacy for the presidency and instead give way to the vice-president.

Leni upped the ante by claiming her camp was the “real opposition,” while leading liberal figures attacked Isko and called him a “pretender,” “dupe,” and Duterte’s “secret candidate.”

Over Twitter, Leni’s legions of online supporters made #LetLeniLRead and #WithdrawLeni were the top tending topics on the microblogging site. In response, the visibly enraged Manila Mayor lashed out at the vice-president, describing her as a “fake leader,” who is not capable of even unifying her own party and political base, while reiterating his commitment and right to run for the highest office.

The greatest beneficiary of the escalating conflict between two former allies, who previously pursued an “untitled opposition” ticket, is no less than Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, who is rapidly consolidating his position as the leading candidate to replace Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte next year.

For months, Duterte’s rivals sought to establish a united front ahead of next year’s elections, where both the Duterte and Marcos dynasties were expected to field a candidate for the top office of the land.

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jnr, the son of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is rapidly consolidating his position as the leading candidate. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Many liberal opposition supporters advocated for a tandem between Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, and charismatic Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who has captured the imagination of the country with his energetic style of governance and sleek online updates on the latest projects in the capital city.

At one point, Leni Robredo, who has struggled to feature among leading candidates in various surveys, even expressed her openness to support a joint ticket between the more popular Isko and boxer-turned-senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, who is running for president under a rival faction within the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban ruling) party.

The unity talks, however, petered out due to competing ambitions and ideological disagreements, particularly on the issue of justice and accountability.

From the very start, Isko Moreno consciously positioned himself as a “healing president,” a centrist candidate who would focus on solutions to pressing governance challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than thorny issues such as ill-gotten wealth under the Marcoses as well as corruption and extrajudicial killings under the Duterte presidency.

“I plan to implement a leadership that is like sewing the Philippine flag from threads that will come from you. I will be a healing president,” declared Moreno last month, upon declaring his intent to run for the presidency.

The Manila Mayor was quickly accused of being a “Marcos apologist” when he seemingly tried to call for reconciliation and transcending grievances and injustices from the past.

“The fight among those families has not brought anything for our country. They are running to seek vengeance against each other. They are just running because of their political affiliations,” Moreno said, referring to an age-old dispute between the Marcoses and the Aquinos, two families that have dominated Philippine politics in the past half-a-century.

Manila Mayor Isko Moreno after filing his candidacy for the country’s 2022 presidential race on October 4, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ezra Acayan

The Manila mayor had already alienated many liberal and opposition supporters after hiring a former top Duterte operative, Lito Banayo, as his campaign manager, raising suspicions that Isko Moreno is a “secret candidate” of the populist incumbent.

No wonder then, Robredo eventually justified her decision to run against Isko by claiming she represents the “true opposition,” admitting key differences on certain issues with the Manila Mayor, without providing further details.

“[To be] very honest about it … there are many points where our positions weren’t aligned … on basic principles we couldn’t find a common ground,” Robredo said in a mixture of Filipino and English after her official registration of candidacy for presidency last week, setting up direct clashes with a potential ally.

Meanwhile, Robredo’s supporters trended the hashtag #WithdrawIsko on Twitter, increasing the pressure on Isko to withdraw in favor of the vice-president.

‘Fake leader with fake color is fake character,’ Isko Moreno responded the following day, without directly mentioning Robredo’s name.

“You cannot talk of unity when you yourself you can’t even unify your own party,” the Manila Mayor said in a mixture of Filipino and English, openly questioning the leadership capabilities of Robredo, who chose to run as an independent rather than under the now much-maligned Liberal Party.

“If you can leave your party mates, what more we, the 110 million Filipinos?”, he added.

Moreno’s campaign manager, Lito Banayo, went a step further by accusing the opposition of ‘betraying’ the Manila mayor.

“[Manila mayor Isko Moreno] feels betrayed … All this time [Robredo] told him that they should unify, and even team him up as president with [Senator] Manny Pacquiao as vice-president,” the former Duterte operative and now Moreno’s campaign manager told the media, explaining the depth of anger and disappointment in his camp.

“All of a sudden now, she wants to be a candidate herself,” he added.

Former senator Antonio Trillanes has taken a swipe at the Manila mayor. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Former Senator Antonio Trillanes, a fierce Duterte critic, lashed back at the Isko camp by accusing the Manila mayor of being a “pretender” and a secret Duterte ally.

“He (Domagoso) was never with us from the beginning. All this projection that he could be sold as part of the opposition is just a front. And that he was just trying to play both sides of the political aisle,” Trillanes, who was previously considered as a potential vice-presidential candidate under Leni, told the media.

“If he idolizes the dictator Marcos, the same presidency will happen. He will use the tactics used by Marcos during martial law,” the former senator added, accusing the Manila mayor of playing down abuses and corruption under the Marcos dictatorship.

Trillanes went so far as describing the recent rhetorical outbursts as revealing Isko Moreno’s true character, since “it’s clear to everybody that this guy being in the middle is all illusion. That’s him being a pretender [to be an opposition candidate]. So, I’m glad he revealed himself this early.”

The Robredo camp also responded in kind, expressing shock over Isko’s tirades against the vice-president.

“We were shocked that despite that clear statement from the Vice-President, Mayor Isko has said these words against her. He even made remarks that seemed to be insulting VP Leni when all she has for him is respect,” Barry Gutiérrez, Robredo’s spokesperson, told the media, underlying Robredo’s decision not to divulge any compromising details about her conversations with Isko over the issue of Marcoses.

Amid vicious infighting among opposition candidates, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the scion of the former dictator, has been rapidly consolidating his position. The latest surveys show he is now the leading candidate in the National Capital Region (NCR) and the broader northern island of Luzon, the seat of power and industries in the Philippines.

Marcos is also statistically tied with presidential daughter Sara Duterte, who is yet to reveal her final plans for the presidency since she can still become a “substitute” candidate for one of the administration placeholder candidates next year.

President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara. Photo: AFP / Richard Madelo

Seizing the momentum, Bongbong Marcos, a former senator, was calling for a united front in next year’s elections, with Sara or Duterte’s preferred successor, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, as his potential running-mate.

“We’re the only ones left on the administration side. In fact, I think all presidential candidates now have identified themselves with the opposition,” Marcos said last week, emphasizing his loyalty to the Dutertes.

“We have always considered ourselves, myself, a Duterte supporter. That alliance has been there since the beginning of his administration and even before that,” said the sole son of the former dictator, calling on the incumbent to support his bid for the presidency.

“In politics, these alliances are supremely important. The question now is [that] now we have formed those alliances, how to strengthen them and how to use them to the maximum effect during the campaign and subsequently the election,” Marcos added, sensing a unique opportunity to seize back Malacañang after decades in the political wilderness.