Will the Philippines’ Future Be Pink?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Will the Philippines’ Future Be Pink?

As the country approaches presidential elections due in May, the Vice President Leni Robredo’s campaign is gaining momentum.

Will the Philippines’ Future Be Pink?

Philippine vice president and presidential candidate Leni Robredo on the campaign trail earlier this month.

Credit: Facebook/Leni Robredo

Several days before the deadline to file certificates of candidacy with the country’s Commission on Elections, it was still not clear whether the Philippines’ Vice President Leni Robredo would join the race to the highest seat in the Philippine government, succeeding the controversial authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte. There were talks, in fact, that she was eyeing instead the gubernatorial post in her home province, Camarines Sur, shying away from the often-messy national elections.

Fast forward to March 2022 and Robredo’s run for the presidency has proven not just to be an ordinary campaign but also something of a movement. The various volunteer groups that have emerged to help guide Robredo to the nation’s highest office are a textbook social movement, which Encyclopedia Britannica describes as resulting “from the more or less spontaneous coming together of people whose relationships are not defined by rules and procedures but who merely share a common outlook on society.” The last time the Philippines had a potent social movement was when it ousted the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Unlike her moneyed opponents, however, Robredo started off with insufficient funds to last the three-month campaign period that precedes the May 9 election. But dealing with paltry resources   is not exactly new to Robredo. Although she has held the second highest post in the Philippine government, the Office of the Vice President (OVP) for nearly six years, she has never enjoyed a full mandate and funding from the government, earning instead brickbats from Malacañang.

The OVP has managed to surmount the various challenges that have come its way. Despite facing personal affronts from Duterte, who accused Robredo of “competing” with the administration, the OVP’s disaster relief and poverty alleviation programs were and continue to be lauded for their efficiency.

What has time and again allowed Robredo to do what she always does, other than her strategic ways of coping with people’s needs, is the constant presence of volunteers and donations from individuals and organizations that believe in her work. As a result, when Robredo confirmed her decision to run for the country’s highest office, it did not take long before various forms of support from individuals and organizations started pouring in.

Fund-raising activities, the printing of various merchandise, and the hosting of lugaw, or rice porridge feeding programs, among other activities, spontaneously unfolded in various parts of the country in support of her candidacy. For example, in Gubat, a town in Sorsogon province not far from Robredo’s hometown, volunteers organized a month-long daily lugaw feeding program. In less than a week, donations to defray the cost of the activity quickly poured in, with more people asking how they could help.

Domestically and abroad, online groups have been formed to support her running for office. Known as one of the biggest labor exporters across the globe, the Philippines currently has an estimated 2.2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). In many of the OFW destination countries, online groups known as Team Leni Robredo (TLR) organize online sessions not only to learn more about Robredo’s candidacy but also to familiarize themselves with her running mate for the vice-presidential post, Kiko Pangilinan, an incumbent Senator, as well as her senatorial slate.

TLR Thailand (TLR-TH) was the first overseas group to have organized events anchored on voters’ education and citizen empowerment, successfully holding its first in-person PINKnic – a gathering of supporters for the movement that seeks change in Philippine governance – in Bangkok. Inspired by TLR-TH’s volunteerism, other TLR groups soon mushroomed in other countries, such as in Japan, Italy, Dubai, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Europe, among other countries.

Major Philippine dailies have reported that from organizing and coordinating activities to holding voters’ education sessions and online miting de advance (political rallies), only Robredo among the ten presidential candidates, enjoys a wide level of support and backing from the electorate. Pulse Asia presidential polls show, however, that Robredo trails behind Marcos.

Social media platforms, online marketplaces such as Lazada and Shopee and even groups on Facebook now offer various kinds of Robredo campaign merchandise, such as tarpaulins, shirts, fans, stickers, pins, posters, and other paraphernalia. Private groups of different permutations, such as those composed of schoolmates, churchgoers, hobbyists, and the like, have also pooled resources to purchase and assemble campaign kits. While many use these campaign kits for themselves, others buy and donate them for other individuals, families and groups. Leni’s supporters are seen posting on their social media accounts a call to Ipanalo natin eto (“Let’s win this”).

Recent months have also seen various groups endorsing Robredo’s candidacy, beginning in September 2021 with the backing of 1Sambayan, a newly launched coalition of Philippine leaders that subscribe to democratic principles and practices in the country. Its main goal is to bring together capable and principled public servants endorsed by the coalition for the May 2022 national elections.

On February 25, the 36th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution, 150 law deans and professors became the latest group to endorse her. The Ateneo de Manila University Department of Theology, framers of the country’s 1987 Constitution, former officials and employees  of the National Economic Development Authority, Couples for Christ International Council, ex-officials of former Presidents Benigno Aquino, Jr., Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Fidel V. Ramos, and the Philippine Bar Association, among many other groups, have endorsed the Robredo ticket as well.

Robredo’s rallies in various parts of the country have so far been well attended by throngs of supporters eager to snap a photo of she and her running mate. In Robredo’s kick-off campaign in Naga City in Bicol, where her late husband Jesse Robredo served as a mayor for six terms, she drew an estimated crowd of 20,000. About the same number of people went to support her when she and Kiko Pangilinan had a rally in vote-rich Quezon City.

The Leni-Kiko rally on February 24 in Cebu, an electorally important province, drew more than 10,000 supporters, while their campaign rally in Ilo-Ilo City, coinciding with the 36th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution, swamped the city in a sea of pink balloons, flyers, posters, and streamers. With Ilo-Ilo being Robredo’s bailiwick, a massive crowd estimated at 40,000 showed up on that day. The Robredo rallies in Negros Occidental stand to be the biggest, thus far, gathering more than 100, 000 Negrenses, capped by 70, 000-strong crowd at the Paglaum Sports Complex in Bacolod. This happened against the backdrop of Marcos-allied politicians in said province.

Despite the enthusiasm of her supporters, many challenges remain. For one, presidential surveys conducted by Pulse Asia in January, and released earlier this month, favor Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

However, polls conducted by other institutions, including the largest Catholic group in the country, are more favorable to Robredo. The January 24-February 4 survey organized by the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines, which polled 3,089 respondents, including students, school heads and administrators, non-teaching personnel, alumni, and other staff, showed Robredo commanding the support of 52.57 percent of respondents, followed by Marcos with 25.54 percent. In a separate poll of investors and analysts, Robredo emerged as the top choice, placing Marcos, together with Pacquiao, at the bottom.

Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez commented, “With this clear momentum from the people’s campaign – reflected both in the massive rallies as well as in online metrics – we are confident that the next 56 days will culminate in an election day victory for Leni Robredo.” Robredo’s campaign team added that the Pulse Asia poll fails to capture the “game-changing developments” that have taken place in recent weeks of campaigning.

Pulse Asia said that Marcos’ ratings could be attributed to his social media presence. Prof. Dindo Manhit, founder and managing director of Stratbase ADR Institute, an independent international research organization, remarked, “Surveys simply tell us what people think at that moment. But the most important decision happens on election day. This is where seasoned politicians may have an advantage.”

With just under two months left before an election that many are describing as the most important in modern Philippine history, the Leni-Kiko campaign is now running at a pace that is generating attendees in the tens of thousands. With Robredo’s campaign clamoring to reclaim democracy, save the country from dynastic politics, and bring it out of the shadow of Duterte’s authoritarianism, several questions remain: Will the energy of Robredo’s campaign prove enough to turn a “pink movement” into a “pink revolution”? Will the last man standing be the race’s lone woman?