Ferdinand Marcos Jr has a commanding lead in pre-election polls. Photo: AFP / Artur Widak / NurPhoto

MANILA – If Philippine presidential elections were held today, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, affectionately known as “BBM”, would almost certainly win by a historic landslide.

All major surveys and opinion polls project a sweeping majority win for the son of the former Filipino dictator, underscoring the nation’s widespread yearning for “strongman” leadership despite years of often incompetent populist rule under outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte.

Eager to hold on to its decisive lead, the Marcos camp has largely boycotted all major presidential debates, including a recent one organized by the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC), in favor of one-on-one interviews with friendly hosts and influencers.

But fear and outrage over the prospective return of the Marcoses to Malacañang Palace are galvanizing the opposition ahead of the May 9 election.

Over the weekend, incumbent Vice President and rival presidential candidate Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s supporters launched a massive rally in the business district of Pasig City in Metro Manila, which saw as many as 130,000 mostly middle-class supporters attend and even caught the attention of global celebrities such as Ariana Grande.

Meanwhile, the Marcoses are facing renewed scrutiny over the revelation that the former first family owes US$3.8 billion in unpaid real estate tax.

President Duterte, who previously branded Marcos Jr as a “weak leader”, has refused to endorse the current frontrunner, even though he is the running mate of his daughter Sara Duterte, who is running for the vice-presidency.

The ex-dictator’s son has further expanded his lead over closest rivals in recent months, posting a 45% lead over Robredo in the Pulse Asia survey, which was conducted between February 18 to 23.

Vice President Leni Robredo is currently in a distant second in the race. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

As many as 60% of survey respondents expressed their preference for Marcos Jr, an unprecedented lead for any presidential candidate since polling agencies were established in the Philippines. It marked a double-digit increase in Marcos Jr’s support base, which was at around 50% in January.  

A more recent survey, conducted by Publicus Asia from March 9 to 14, shows a slightly more narrow yet still commanding lead for Marcos Jr, who enjoys a 34% lead over Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition. Both surveys showed a steady and statistically significant increase in the frontrunner’s base of support in the past quarter.

Controversially, a faction within the PDP-LABAN ruling party, which traces its roots to anti-dictatorship struggles during the Marcos era, has also publicly endorsed the ex-dictator’s son.

A buoyant Marcos welcomed the endorsement as a step towards unifying the administration slate. Boxer-turned-Senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, who leads a separate faction within the PDP-LABAN ruling party, is also running for the presidency.

“This fresh development, this will consolidate the forces of unity so that we can continue to work against those who would want to divide Filipinos against each other,” Marcos Jr told reporters following the latest endorsement. 

“Thank you, PDP and all its members and I look forward to working with them. I don’t think it will be that difficult because we are already friends, we just formalized our relationship,” the presidential contender added, vowing to “bring the country together” as he racks up endorsements.

But even the Duterte administration is deeply divided. Former Senate president Koko Pimental, the son of the chief founder of PDP-LABAN, slammed the decision of the rival faction as contradictory to the basic principles of the party.

“They don’t even acknowledge that PDP-LABAN was established to oppose the Marcos dictatorship,” Pimentel said, going so far as to liken the Marcoses to the German dictator Adolf Hitler.

Presidential daughter Sara “Inday” Duterte welcomed the endorsement but admitted that the position of her father, who at times has openly resented the impending return of the Marcoses, is yet to be known.

“I cannot speak for the president, I do not know what he’s thinking right now,” the vice presidential contender added, with Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar also expressing similar uncertainty.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara arrive for the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 in China’s Hainan province. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Meanwhile, centrist candidates such as Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, who has consistently ranked third in surveys, have gone more aggressively after the Marcoses over their unpaid taxes and past record of massive embezzlement.

The Robredo campaign, however, has chosen to focus on consolidating its support base, which now even includes some Duterte allies. Earlier this month, PDP-Laban vice president and Eastern Samar Governor Ben Evardone, a key Duterte ally, not only publicly endorsed the opposition leader but even suggested that the incumbent is now rooting for her.

“I told [Duterte] that I am about to endorse VP Leni because I see in her the sincerity of a leader to help the poor,” said the governor, claiming that Duterte has already made a “soft endorsement” of the opposition leader by recently expressing his preference for a “compassionate” and “preferably lawyer” successor.

“If the President decides to endorse her, that would greatly help propel her to victory and there would be a continuity of PRRD’s pro-people reform programs,” the Duterte ally added.

Sensing the incumbent’s displeasure with the frontrunner, some allies have been actively pushing for a hybrid “RoSa” tandem, composed of Leni Robredo and presidential daughter Sara Duterte. 

So far, however, the Robredo campaign has been lukewarm to ambivalent gestures from the president’s camp, indicating that there will be no ‘grand bargains’ made with Duterte, who has been accused of widespread human rights violations in a scorched-earth drug war.

“She said if that happens, she will welcome it provided that it’s not a transactional arrangement. In other words, it’s not an endorsement in exchange for something else,” Robredo’s spokesman Barry Gutierrez told CNN Philippines.

“You know, obviously, this is an election…If somebody comes forward and says, ‘I’m going to support you,’ then the response is thank you and move on,” he added.

The opposition’s focus, so far, is on mobilizing their volunteers and largely middle-class support base across the country, while courting swing voters and politicos across strategic provinces.

Over the past three weeks, the Robredo campaign managed to organize “grand rallies” across the country, featuring waves of pink-wearing supporters from across different demographics, culminating in last weekend’s massive gathering in the Pasig business district in the nation’s capital.

Vice President Leni Robredo at a ‘People’s Rally’ in Pasig City on March 19, 2022. Photo: VP Leni Media Bureau

Aerial footage of the massive gathering at Emerald Avenue in Pasig captured headlines and dominated social media feeds in the Philippines. Even American singer and actress Ariana Grande caught wind of footage that showed tens of thousands of Leni supporters singing her “Break Free” in unison.

“I could not believe this was real. I love you more than words,” said the global singing sensation in a caption of the event featuring her song.

But while popular among middle-classes in major urban centers, Robredo desperately needs to ramp up her support base among the urban poor as well as in Mindanao, where Marcos Jr enjoys his most significant geographic lead thanks to Sara Duterte’s, though not necessarily her father’s, backing.