Philippine presidential frontrunner Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr on the campaign trail. Photo: Facebook / Yahoo

MANILA – The Philippines will elect its next set of leaders on Monday, including outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor.

There are 67.5 million eligible voters who will determine who will occupy up to 18,000 positions across all levels of government, including close to 12,000 local council posts and and 1,500 mayoral seats.

All eyes, however, are on the top national positions, including the senate, the vice-presidency and the highest office of the land, the presidency, which are all elected separately.

Unlike many comparable democracies, the Philippines does not have run-off elections. Over the past three decades, all Filipino presidents only won a plurality of votes, which proved sufficient in a first-past-the-post electoral system. 

According to most recent authoritative surveys, presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and his ally, vice-presidential candidate Sara Duterte, are in a strong position to become the first majority-based top leaders in the country in recent memory.

Their allies are also expected to dominate the legislature, including the all-important Senate, which would be crucial to determining the future of the Philippines’ democracy and foreign relations. 

By all indications, political dynasties are expected to tighten their grip on all elected positions of the government, with the Marcos and Duterte families leading the way. Only days before the crucial elections, Marcos Jr, the namesake of the former dictator, told his supporters during a major rally: “We already won!”

Vice-President Maria Leonor Robredo. Photo: WikiCommons / Kark Nnorman Alonzo

His top advisor and spokesman, Victor Rodriguez, called on supporters to “refrain from complacency.” Though trailing in the surveys, Vice-President Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s campaign has organized massive rallies and attracted high-profile endorsements in recent weeks.

Having beaten Marcos Jr in the 2016 vice-presidential elections, her camp remains confident they will once again pull off an 11th-hour upset against the late dictator’s son. 

In order to prevent a Marcosian dictatorship, the Philippines’ democratic constitution has placed a number of restrictions on presidential powers, most notably term limits. Since the return of democratic elections in the mid-1980s, all Filipino presidents have been confined to a single, six-year term in office. 

Even the authoritarian populist incumbent Duterte is respecting his constitutionally-defined term limits. The only exception is former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), who replaced her ousted predecessor, Joseph Estrada, after a second “People Power” revolt in 2001. 

Nevertheless, from its very inception, the current Philippine political system was fundamentally vulnerable to authoritarian relapse. As early as 1992, just a year after the Marcoses returned to the country from exile in Hawaii, the Southeast Asian country came dangerously close to ditching its hard-won democracy. 

Had former First Lady Imelda Marcos and former Marcos crony Eduardo Cojuangco Jr joined forces in that year’s elections, the scions of the former dictator would have likely reclaimed Malacañang only six years after their fall from power. 

Over the next two decades, two other pro-Marcos presidents were elected to power – the erstwhile loyalist Estrada and incumbent strongman Rodrigo Duterte, both of whom enjoyed the full support of the Marcoses.

In 2016, only months after claiming the presidency, Duterte not only publicly thanked the Marcoses for their campaign support, but even buried the remains of the former dictator in the Cemetery of National Heroes. 

Outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: China-US Focus

On multiple occasions, Duterte himself tried to perpetuate his dynasty in power through either constitutional change, indefinite emergency powers or in a tandem with his daughter Sara, who led pre-election presidential surveys last year.

But the populist president, a longtime provincial mayor, always lacked either the necessary discipline or wherewithal to pull off regime change altogether. 

The Marcoses and their allies shrewdly exploited the situation by convincing the presidential daughter, who had no experience in national government, to team up with the ex-dictator’s son instead.

As a result, much of Duterte’s support base shifted in favor of Macros Jr, who enjoys near majority support in all major surveys. 

Crucially, their allies are also expected to dominate the Senate, which has the constitutional task of approving international treaties as well as any proposed constitutional change. Among opposition candidates, only Senator Risa Hontiveros has the chance of retaining her seat in the crucial chamber. 

Should the Marcoses return to Malacañang, they will likely finish off what Duterte started by passing a new constitution altogether, thus tightening their grip on the levers of power for years to come. 

Still reeling from their stinging defeat in the 2016 elections, which they unsuccessfully contested in the Supreme Court, the Marcos camp has remained vigilant

“We already won! Just closely monitor the votes on Monday without sleeping a wink. Ask all your friends for lots of coffee so that you wouldn’t fall asleep because we all know that once we fall asleep, a lot of unfortunate things could happen,” Marcos said in Filipino during a major rally this week.

“As the campaign unfolded, the unity among Filipinos started to grow and unified the entire Philippines. You didn’t wait for the elections, nor the election results, but Filipinos are leading the movement of unity that we started, we are fighting for, and we are calling for as this would be good for the country,” the presidential candidate added. 

Presidential candidate Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr speaking at an election rally in Batasan Hills, Quezon City. Photo: WikiCommons

On her part, Sara Duterte thanked supporters, stating: “If we say [victory], we already won. Everyone wins.” According to a poll by OCTA Research, which covered the final weeks of the campaign through April, Marcos garnered a 58% voter preference, while Duterte enjoyed 56% support. 

The opposition, however, remains adamant that they can pull off an upset victory.

Despite trailing in the latest surveys, Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez remained upbeat by emphasizing the opposition leader’s “upward trajectory and momentum,” reminding the hopeful that the anti-Marcos “grassroots movement of Filipinos from all walks of life and from all over the Philippines” will make the difference come election day. 

Robredo, who has consistently placed second in major surveys, has struggled throughout the year to attract the support of more than a quarter of total voters. Critics have questioned her campaign strategy, the quality of her political advisers and even her seeming indecisiveness in the lead-up to the presidential elections last year. 

Throughout the past six years, she has remained largely on the defensive, just as both Duterte and Marcos’ supporters unleashed a vicious campaign of disinformation to question her electoral mandate.

Yet she remained aloof to the media, rarely giving interviews. It wasn’t until recently that she began to fight back against her detractors with more vigor and discipline. 

In recent weeks, Robredo’s campaign has been boosted by major endorsements from both former Duterte allies as well as first-tier celebrities. Crucially, she has enjoyed the support of a legion of youthful volunteers, who have gone on an aggressive house-to-house campaign in recent months to win over undecided voters.  

In a recent speech, Robredo called on the Filipino people to vote based on their conscience, while encouraging her supporters to continue their nationwide “house-to-house campaigns” to prevent the return of the Marcoses to the Malacañang presidential palace. 

Vice-President Leni Robredo joined a crowded field of candidates for the Philippines presidency. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

“Let’s not vote just because our public officials said so. I know many of you will follow your officials. But let us be more aware of what candidates believe and what their track record is. Let us not be fooled by fake news,” she said.

“That is why we do house-to-house campaigns so that we can replace lies with the truth,” she told her supporters during a rally in Dipolog City, Zamboanga del Norte. 

“During our time, it was like this too. It was us, the youth, who had the guts to go out to the streets and fight the dictatorship. I thought everything would be okay after the [1986] People Power Revolution.

“But we can see now that even with the long time our country has been abused, we are now back again fighting for it,” she said, referring to the popular revolt that toppled the Marcos dictatorship.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian