WITH only a few weeks left before the Philippines holds a presidential election, the lone female candidate is attracting some of the largest pre-election crowds in decades as she tries to create a stunning revolt against front-runner Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr.
Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo, who became vice president in 2016 after defeating Mr Marcos, has scattered more than two million volunteers to go house-to-house and visit local markets to talk about her achievements and counter disinformation on social media as her campaign says comes from her opponents.
The question is whether the increase in support for Mrs Robredo is too small, too late: A poll in March showed the 57-year-old lawyer followed more than 30 percentage points after Marcos Jr., the deceased’s only son. The Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.
“Many ravage us and say we have no chance of winning. Do you believe that?” Mrs Robredo asked a crowd that her campaign said exceeded 400,000 people during her birthday meeting on April 23. “No!” Cheered her supporters, who came in droves to the gathering in Pasay City on the outskirts of the capital.
This is not the first time Mrs Robredo has been in this position. In pre-Vice Presidential polls in 2016, Mrs Robredo followed Mr Marcos by six percentage points just a month before the vote and managed to defeat him by a small margin, resulting in a protracted legal battle.
This time she has a much steeper climb, thanks in part to Mr. Marcos’ running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio. The daughter of President Rodrigo R. Duterte had been first in presidential polls before she decided to go for role No. 2. The formidable alliance combines the northern strongholds of the Marcos clan with Duterte’s popularity in the south.
Ms. Robredo has sought to appeal to suburban voters who are on guard against a return to the Marcos years. Her progress in politics has reflected former President Corazon C. Aquino, who led the uprising against Marcos after her husband was assassinated by military escorts at Manila International Airport in 1983. Ms. Robredo participated in these protests, which she described as a “political awakening”. “.
She entered politics after her husband, then a member of the cabinet of former President Benigno “Noynoy” SC Aquino III, died in a plane crash in 2012. During 2016, Mrs Robredo used the color yellow in her campaign against Mr. Marcos, similar to what Corazon Aquino did years earlier while opposing his father.
This time, however, Mrs Robredo stands as independent at the last minute after the opposition failed to agree on a candidate. She chose pink as the campaign color and took a signal from her supporters who used the color in social media profiles when they saw her wearing a pink ribbon to announce her candidacy in October.
The only woman among the 10 presidential candidates, Mrs Robredo, is running on a platform where an honest and effective government will lead the Southeast Asian nation to inclusive prosperity. Rappler columnist Jamina Vesta Jugo said the choice of pink underscores Ms. Robredo’s “public femininity” in a political area dominated by Mr. Duterte administration’s “macho position”.
Mr. Marcos has partly stayed ahead due to social media posts and online comments saying his father’s rule was a golden era, denying that atrocities were committed. As a cautious speaker, he has largely focused on messages of unity in rallies, gathered by local politicians, and avoided presidential debates.
In contrast, Mrs Robredo has faced a barrage of misinformation on social media, which has forced her to repeatedly deny that she has affairs. The latest attack on her as the poll approaches was a fake sex video of her eldest daughter.
“Sexism is part of the arsenal of disinformation actors,” said Nicole Curato, a sociology professor at the University of Canberra. “These are meant to humiliate women who are active in politics. It also sends a signal to other women who want to speak out and participate in politics.”
Ms. Robredo said she regrets having ignored online attacks in the past and has urged supporters to fight lies with truth and to knock on doors to woo the unresolved. Her campaign says the biggest increases in support come when she attends rallies in the provinces and interacts with her volunteers on the ground, an unusual strategy in a nation where local politicians tend to organize voters.
“We did not have the machinery, the air war,” said campaign spokesman Barry Gutierrez. “What we had is a large, heavily invested volunteer army.”
Among these volunteers is 32-year-old Annie Maligaya, who leads a group of neighbors who came together to campaign for Mrs. Robredo, tackling transportation, meals, and campaign materials.
“I have participated in several webinars where we share tips on how to talk to people and convert them,” she said in Mandaluyong City in the metropolitan area. “Do not let the devil demoralize you, just focus. Reach out to as many people as possible. And the suggestion is to keep the conversation as easy as possible.”
Rival campaigns have tried to downplay Mrs Robredo’s efforts. Manila’s Mayor Francisco “Isko” M. Domagoso’s camp, which is ranked third in the presidential contest, said Robredo is simply preaching to the choir during rallies.
At a recent demonstration in Bataan province north of Metro Manila, an area where Mr Marcos has received support from local politicians, about 65,000 people turned up for Mrs Robredo’s meeting. “We will not surrender Bataan,” shouted the crowd, referring to the last stand of Filipino and American soldiers in the province against the Japanese during World War II.
Still, it is not clear whether Ms. Robredo will reach a wider audience despite the enthusiasm she has created, said Cleo Calimbahin, professor of political science at De La Salle University.
“The concern is, will the momentum be enough to win the election? Can these crowds be translated into votes?” she said. “I do not think they have cracked the code.” – Bloomberg