Supporters cheer for Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo on her candidacy to join the 2022 presidential race outside the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Pasay, Metro Manila on October 7, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jam Sta Rosa

MANILA – The upcoming Philippine presidential elections took a dramatic turn this week when Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr officially registered to run for the presidency in 2022.

The sole son of the former Philippine dictator promised to bring about a “unifying leadership” and “service our country” amid the raging pandemic and a deep economic crisis in the Southeast Asian country.

Recent surveys show the former senator and vice-presidential candidate is now statistically tied in first place with Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte and Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno.

Boasting massive resources, a nationwide network of allies, grassroots support and overseeing a sleek propaganda machine, Marcos, 64, is heading into the race as the favorite, especially if the presidential daughter decides to skip the race altogether and alternatively seek re-election as Davao City mayor next year.

But the emergence of the scion of the former dictator as a top contender for the presidency next year has energized the liberal opposition, which is intent on preventing the return of the Marcoses to Malacañang.

Within 24 hours, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition and head of the Liberal Party, also declared her candidacy for the presidency, vowing to end “old and rotten politics” in a thinly-veiled jab against both Marcoses and incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte.

With boxer-turned-statesman Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao and Mayor Moreno having already filed their challenges, the upcoming presidential elections are shaping up as an extremely unpredictable and potentially chaotic race.

Up until June, the much-anticipated “Duterte-Duterte” tandem seemed like a shoo-in for next year’s elections. Both the Filipino president as well as his daughter, Sara, topped the race among potential candidates for the vice-presidency and presidency, respectively.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara have both had second thoughts about seeking the top job. Photo: AFP

But constant infighting within the ruling party, open spats within the Duterte camp, and a spate of corruption scandals in top government agencies provided an opening for rivals.

Marcos, who remained tight-lipped about his plans throughout the year, started to more openly project himself as the candidate of the right, indirectly pushing Sara Duterte out of the race.

“I will bring … unifying leadership back to our country, “said Marcos after declaring his candidacy this week. “Let us bring Filipinos back to one another in service of our country, facing the crisis and the challenges of the future together,” he added, indirectly criticizing the incumbent, long-time allies but now rivals, for mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest surveys show that the Dutertes are rapidly losing their base of support, which has splintered along multiple factions. In response, the Filipino president declared his “retirement” from politics, and instead pushed his longtime protégé, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, to run for the vice-presidency.

As for Sara Duterte, her camp has been struggling with defections and declining morale, especially as the Marcoses started to consolidate their support base among more conservative and authoritarian-minded sections of the populace.

The Dutertes have been losing their so-called “Solid South” bailiwick support to Manny Pacquiao, another son of the southern island of Mindanao, who is also gunning for the presidency next year on a tough, anti-corruption agenda.

Meanwhile, Moreno has captured the imagination of more centrist voters, especially in the national capital region, by presenting himself as a “healing” president, who would end years of political polarization.

For long, however, Vice President Leni Robredo kept quiet about her own political plans. In recent months, she has desperately tried to facilitate a “united opposition” front by initially supporting a potential Isko-Pacquiao team-up.

But with the youthful and ambitious politicians aiming for the highest office, the negotiations among potential opposition candidates fell through.

Leni Robredo during a press conference to announce she will run in the 2022 presidential race in Quezon City on October 7, 2021. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

Unsure about her next move, Leni Robredo embarked on a days-long “discernment process” in order to weigh her options forward. At times, her camp signaled the possibility that she would instead contest a local government office in her home province of Bicol.

Nevertheless, the 1Sambayan coalition group, which is headed by legal luminaries such as former Supreme Court justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio-Morales, endorsed her as the liberal opposition’s candidate in 2022.  

Amid a groundswell of support and the real and present danger of a potential Marcos presidency, Leni Robredo eventually decided to throw her own hat into the ring.

Back in 2016, she narrowly defeated Marcos, who repeatedly and unsuccessfully challenged his electoral loss at the Philippine Supreme Court. Now, both Leni Robredo and Marcos are headed for a new and even more high-stakes showdown.

Hours ahead of her official filing of a certificate of candidacy for the president on October 7, she gave an impassioned speech, which took social media by storm.

“I am firm in my resolve – we need to free ourselves from the current situation. I will fight. We will fight. I offer myself as a candidate for president in the 2022 elections,” declared Robredo, reaffirming her personal commitment to prevent the return of Marcoses to power and ending the disastrous reign of the Dutertes.

“Let us defeat the old and rotten politics. Let’s restore to ordinary Filipinos the power to bring about change. I know many of you have been working on this goal for the past few months. I can feel your trust in me. Let me say it now: I also have complete trust in you,” she told her supporters.

Recognizing the waning appeal of the Liberal Party (LP) and its so-called “Yellow” base, the Robredo camp consciously rebranded itself by, among other things, running as an “independent” candidate, adopting a new pink color for the political campaign as well as taking a more strident and progressive policy position.

The widow of a popular former mayor and interior secretary, Jesse Robredo, the Filipino vice-president reminded her supporters of her humble roots and years-long service to marginalized groups in her home province in Bicol.

Robredo’s strong running mate

She struck a more defiant and uncompromising note than typical liberal politicians, underscoring her advocacy for a more assertive and progressive form of politics, which calls for justice and accountability on the part of both the Marcoses and Dutertes, who have been accused of widespread corruption and human rights violations throughout their reign in Malacañang.

Recognizing the need for machinery and resources in a highly competitive race, the Robredo camp has reportedly chosen LP stalwart Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan as her running-mate.

Francis Pangilinan served as former president Benigno Aquino’s adviser on food security. Photo: AFP / Jay Directo

“For many of us, Pangilinan’s experience and knowledge make him the best choice as (Robredo’s) partner in ending the incompetent and corrupt government we have had since 2016,” an opposition insider told the media.

Robredo also chose former Senator Beningo “Bam” Aquino VI, a scion of the Aquino family, as her campaign manager.

“She asked me to be her campaign manager in this incredibly important but challenging campaign,” declared Aquino, emphasizing the influential family’s full support for Robredo’s bid for the Malacanang.

“While I have prepared to become a senator again, I decided to set aside my bid for this more important battle for our country,” he added, confident that he could once again pull off a stunning electoral victory as he did as Robredo’s vice-presidential campaign manager in 2016.