Despite huge win, Bongbong disappoints

Author: Ronald D Holmes, De La Salle University

A Filipino commentator described Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr’s win as crushing. This is appropriate based on the current vote count. Bongbong will be the first president after the political transition of 1986 to be elected by a majority of voters in a majoritarian electoral system. He assumes the presidency with an unequivocal mandate that even incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte did not have.

Bongbong’s victory is a testament to an effective rebranding of his personality. The brand change was actively pursued on social media and started with stories in various social media platforms that glorified martial law and disproved accounts of the family’s ill-gotten wealth. The brand change was prompted by Duterte’s decision to bury Bongbong’s father – the late dictator – in the National Heroes Cemetery. This affirmed the imaginary heroism of the dead despot, a historical distortion that Marcos Sr peddled in the early 1960s as he prepared to run for the presidency in 1965.

Bongbong successfully projected himself as anti-populist with its oft-repeated message of unity that inspired hope among an audience yearning for recovery from a debilitating pandemic.

The alliance between the Dutertes and the Marcos could also be behind the Bongbong landslide. While Duterte called Bongbong, a weak leader and spoiled child in November 2016, the scathing criticism did not dent Bongbong’s electoral support as he was already paired at the time with his running mate Sara Duterte, Rodrigo’s daughter. Bongbong’s pre-election support hit majority in December 2021.

Bongbong’s support increased significantly in all sub-national areas, but the biggest increase occurred in the main island considered Duterte’s country – Mindanao. 8% of voters in Mindanawon who expressed their support for him in September 2021; which soared to 64% in December 2021. Bongbong’s partnership with Sara has proven hugely beneficial as he has been able to maintain such a high level of support in Mindanao until election day, and even in the Central Visayas region Bisayan-speaking where Duterte’s name continues to enjoy substantial support.

Bongbong and Sara’s victory can be attributed to weak opposition. The weakness of the opposition and Bongbong’s incumbent vice-president, Leni Robredo, was partly due to Duterte. Populist Duterte has consistently denounced the alleged shortcomings and abuses of the previous administration of the late President Benigno S Aquino III. Duterte called Robredo incompetent and unfit to be president. Robredo herself was the main target of disinformation throughout his mandate and in the months leading in the election.

The opposition’s reluctance to counter false narratives has contributed to its declining support. Robredo’s approval and trust ratings steadily declined during his tenure due to attacks from Duterte and his legion of social media influencers. Robredo first admitted it herself 2019and more recently when she mentioned“When I started my tenure, I was too naive about the power of social media or the power of social media, that I didn’t do enough.”

But the biggest failure of the mainstream opposition has been its inability to push through institutional reforms when it had the chance, especially under Aquino III. These reforms include the legislation of a Freedom of Information Act, the Political Party Development Act and the decriminalization of defamation.

Several days after the elections on May 9, 2022, attention has turned to the decisions that will be made by the presumptive president, Bongbong. So far, he has announced that his running mate Sara has accepted the education portfolio, although she prefers to be named defense secretary.

In his conversation with US President Joe Biden, Bongbong assured him that the Philippines would always be hold the United States in “high regard as a friend, ally and partner”. While Chinese President Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message was delivered by hand by the Chinese ambassador, Bongbong has yet to respond publicly.

Unlike his running mate Sara, who urged his followers to reach out to those who supported his opponents, Bongbong did not utter a word that affirms his commitment to carrying out his unity campaign message. The delay in assembling his cabinet and releasing key policy statements reflects how unprepared Bongbong is to lead the country. Despite a landslide victory, Bongbong disappoints.

Ronald D Holmes is Professor of Political Science and Development Studies at De La Salle University and President of Pulse Asia Research Inc. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and the author alone.

Melvin B. Baillie