Philippine President Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr faces challenges early in his term. Image: Twitter

MANILA – “Just a little bit more,” a beaming Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the frontrunner to become the next Philippine president, declared before a massive crowd of adoring fans in his latest campaign rally in the vote-rich Lipa City on the outskirts of Metro-Manila.

The crowd, a sea of red, the campaign color of the Marcos clan, roared back “You’re already a winner!”

“Nobody gets left behind until we reach the end,” promised the son of ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos, presenting himself as a unifying candidate who would make a deeply divided and impoverished country great again. Speaking in Filipino with an almost archaic style patterned after his father’s, Marcos Jr evoked nostalgic reassurance.

Constantly referring to a supposed golden past, code for his father’s long reign throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Marcos Jr spoke of a future where every Filipino, from all walks of life, can dream of a better future.

Still reeling from his stinging defeat in the vice-presidential race in 2016, Marcos Jr half-jestingly told his supporters that come election night on May 9, his campaign will be providing “tons of three-in-one [coffee] so that nobody will fall asleep” and, accordingly, prevent “things [from] happen[ing] at night.”

In short, the election frontrunner implied that only widespread fraud could derail his bid to recapture the Malacañang presidential palace for his Marcos clan comprised of his parliamentarian mother Imelda Marcos and his sister Senator Imee Marcos. Surprising to some considering the Marcos clan’s kleptocratic past, Marcos Jr has amassed a formidable lead in all major surveys despite largely shunning public debates.

Marcos Jr’s campaign speeches have been mostly devoid of policy details, with only vague references made to national “unity.” His archrival, Vice-President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, has seen a surge in support in recent surveys, with her campaign hoping to pull off yet another election upset on election day on May 9.

Vice-President Robredo is currently in second place in the race for the Philippine presidency. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Although deeply personalistic, with various political dynasties dominating the race for various government positions across the country, the elections have touched on several key policy issues.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout continue to be a top concern for Filipino voters, surveys show. Up to 70% of Filipinos identified health and well-being as a top personal concern, reflecting the depth of worries over the course of the pandemic, according to an authoritative poll conducted last year by Pulse Asia, a local pollster.

Meanwhile, as many as half of the respondents emphasized unemployment (47%) and hunger (46%) as top personal concerns, followed by education (43%). Barely a third (32%) of respondents identified crime and social order issues as a top concern, even if this has been the centerpiece of the outgoing Rodrigo Duterte administration’s policy agenda for the past six years.

Throughout the election campaign, all top candidates including Marcos Jr have indicated their preference to reform and tone down the incumbent’s violent drug war, which has claimed the lives of thousands of drug suspects.

Though vowing to continue Duterte’s bloody drug war, Marcos Jr has emphasized the need for a more surgical approach, focusing on major drug kingpins rather than community-wide violent crackdowns, as well as rehabilitation and public health policy measures to address the illegal drugs problem.

The precipitous fall in Covid-19 infection rates in recent months, however, has refocused public attention on surging inflation amid ongoing disruptions to global food and energy supplies in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, inflation rose to 4% in March from 3% in the two previous months. One major source of concern is skyrocketing oil prices, which have sent shockwaves across the economy.

Electricity costs have surged by 18%, while the price of liquefied petroleum gas increased by 26.5%. The situation has been even more dramatic with gasoline and diesel prices, which have jumped by 36.7% and 58%, respectively.

Historically, inflation has consistently been a top concern for voters. In 2017, for instance, “controlling inflation” was the most urgent national concern for half of the respondents (50%), according to a survey by Pulse Asia. By late-2021, inflation was still the most urgent national concern.

In response, presidential candidates have proposed various measures to curb energy costs, including tax cuts, regulation of highly-liberalized energy markets and the development of offshore energy resources, including in the hotly-disputed South China Sea.

Filipino activists march towards the Chinese consulate for a protest in Manila on February 10, 2018, against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Multiple candidates, including Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, have indicated their openness to explore joint energy exploration and development agreements with China in contested maritime areas.

For his part, Marcos Jr, who has favored closer cooperation with China, has vowed to pursue nuclear energy and, accordingly, explore the possible reopening of the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, which was commenced under his father’s regime.

The US$2.2 billion power plant has been hounded by corruption scandals and shut down decades earlier due to safety and environmental concerns. Marcos Jr, however, has dismissed those concerns as purely political, indicating his openness to continue his father’s nuclear energy initiatives.

“We really have to look at nuclear power. Let’s not politicize it. Once again, follow the science,” he said in an interview earlier this year, citing several proposals by foreign companies to assist any prospective nuclear energy project, including the reopening of the shuttered plant in Bataan. “So maybe, we can still use it. If not, then maybe we can build another one.”

Another top concern for voters is public infrastructure. Historically, surveys have shown that “bad” and “insufficient” roads as well as “flooding” and “clogged drainage” are urgent concerns for a majority of Filipinos. During the election campaign, all top candidates have expressed plans to continue the Duterte administration’s multi-billion-dollar “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure initiative.

Where candidates tend to differ, however, is in areas or priority, means of financing as well as reliance on Chinese infrastructure investments.

“We will continue the Build, Build, Build, but we will provide emphasis on PPP [Public-Private-Partnership] instead of ODA [Official Development Assistance]. But for PPP to succeed, we should fix our government so that more investors will trust us,” said Vice-President Robredo during a presidential debate last month.

She has emphasized the need for climate-resilient and financially transparent projects, while remaining generally skeptical of cooperation with China. 

Manila’s popular mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso is trailing in opinion polls. Photo: Instagram

Meanwhile, Manila Mayor Moreno has broadly praised Duterte’s infrastructure initiatives, vowing to “build more houses, better schools, more hospitals, more post-harvest facilities for the fisherfolk and farmers, and more sources of energy for stability in the Philippines.”  

Senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, the prizefighter turned politician, has echoed similar sentiments by praising the incumbent’s infrastructure initiative as a “good project” for fostering “economic growth and development”, while emphasizing his commitment to “continue the housing project nationwide. If I become president, I will implement this program nationwide.”

By all indications, though, the winner of the race will be decided by voters’ assessment of the leadership qualities of the candidates over the specific merits of their policy proposals. After all, with few notable exceptions, all top candidates have echoed similar policy proposals on the issues Filipinos have indicated matter most to them.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richydarian