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The Villages
Sunday, April 24, 2022

Democracy at a crossroads in the Philippines

Tita Dumagsa

Most of us are of immigrant roots, whether first or second generation. We are HYPHENATED AMERICANS as in my case, I am a Flipino-American. The land of my birth is the PHILIPPINES but I am an American by choice. However, the Philippines, because it gave birth and shaped me to what I am today, will always have a special and unforgettable place in my heart  One always cannot help but be interested and concerned  as to what is happening in one’s homeland.

The Philippines  and the United States share a long and storied history which is based on strong historical, cultural and military linkages and a shared commitment to democracy and human rights. The ideals and institutions of Democracy are America’s gifts to the Philippines. There are more than 300,000 U.S. citizens including a large number of U.S. military veterans  residing in the Philippines while there are more than four million Filipino-Americans in the United States.

Filipinos  will never forget General MacArthur’s promise of “I SHALL RETURN” that liberated the Philippines from the deadly horrors of the Japanese Occupation. In 1951, the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) which segued to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) dictated that both nations would commit to support each other if either one were to be attacked by an external party.

The U.S. Bases in Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Complex in the Philippines played a big role during the Vietnam War. As allied democracies, the United States and the Philippines share fundamental interests in securing stability, freedom and peace in the Asia-Pacific  region. This is so important in today’s  territorial dispute with China and its increased aggression in the South China Sea to annex e.g., the Spratley Islands, a Philippine territory,  thereby threatening  Philippine sovereignty.

The Philippines and the United States have a Trade  Agreement. The  U.S. traditionally has been one of the Philippines’ largest foreign investors with a foreign direct investment  (FDI) of $ 5.2 billion in 2020. On the other hand in 2021,  the Philippines exported $11.86 billion to the United States mainly office machine parts, integrated  circuits and  other electronics.

Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) , the Philippines has been the recipient over the past 20 years of $4.5 billion in US development assistance and  livelihood projects to advance the Philippines’ development goals and food to support the Philippines’ war on poverty. This included the government’s reform agenda in critical areas such as anti-money laundering to thwart Islamic terrorists’ funding, rule of law, tax collection, and trade and investment. $4.5 billion had been  given to the Philippine health sector. Since March,2020, USAID, the Department of Defense and the State Department have  invested more than $22.6 million to help the Philippines with its COVID-19 response.

Because of these ties that bind, Americans and in particular, Filipino-Americans ,have a vested interest and should take notice  in what’s going to happen in the Philippines on May 9.
Come May 9, the Philippines will be holding its general elections. In a country of 112, 508 million, an unprecedented 67 million Filipinos including Filipino overseas workers and hyphenated Filipinos who have dual citizenships have registered to vote in the upcoming elections.  The Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) says the ‘historic’ registration numbers are clear indications that Filipinos are determined to exercise their right to vote in 2022 despite the COVID-19 threat. Many are describing these elections as the most important in modern Philippine history.

The 2022 vote is seen as a high stakes election to choose the successor to President Rodrigo Duterte who cannot run for another term due to constitutional limits. He is seen as having  gutted the country’s democratic institutions and freedoms since he took office in 2016.

With his “war on drugs,”,30,000 people may have been summarily executed in extrajudicial killings He has captured the judiciary and engineered the ouster of Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. He has hamstrung the legislature’s balancing role as well. Senator Leila de Lima who launched a human rights probe into state sponsored killings has been in police detention on trumped-up corruption charges since 2017.

Duterte appears to have borrowed from the Marcos, Sr.’s playbook. He has modeled his deadly strong arm and bullying tactics after former President Marcos. Duterte employed emergency martial law powers more extensively than his predecessors, stopping short of outright dictatorship. Lethal violence against activists “red-tagged” as radical insurgents has gone up. He and his allies have applied economic and legal pressure on independent media so much so that Maria Ressa, the founder of the online media website, Rappler, became a  co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous fight for a free press in the Philippines. He has extorted from the country’s wealthy businesses and has  muzzled his critics with threats. He has aligned himself with China and Russia and portrayed America as the “enemy.”

Democracy is at a CROSSROAD in the Philippines. Will it be more of the same as it has always been where graft and corruption rules, dynastic oligarch politics and unbridled authoritarianism are the norm, where the 3 G’s of guns, goons and gold determine the results of the elections?

The main Presidential protagonists are Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.  who is referred to by the initials “BBM”and the opposition candidate , Maria Leonor Gerona Robredo who simply goes by “Leni.”

The frontrunner by far is 64 years old  “Bongbong” Marcos  He has a commanding 45 point lead in the opinion polls. He is the son and namesake of ousted dictator, Ferdinand Marcos and the infamous Imelda Marcos. He is a former Congressman and Senator. Majority of his supporters are those under 30, voters who were not born when his father ruled for 20 years,  half of which he imposed nationwide martial law and presided over human rights violations where  thousands of his opponents were beaten,  tortured and disappeared or were killed. His administration was known for its corruption and massive economic slowdown.

Marcos Jr.’s positive messaging has engaged his millions of supporters on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook and YouTube. His campaign advocates for “unity” and avoids mudslinging as a means of lifting the country from the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. He promises to unite the country while continuing the legacy of Rodrigo Duterte.

However, he has become the most divisive candidate in the race. Political critics decry the human rights atrocities during Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship, the billions of dollars of the family’s ill-gotten wealth with accusations of plundering $10 billion from state coffers and the family’s unpaid taxes. His mother, Imelda Marcos has managed to avoid jail despite being convicted of graft. Philippine foreign debt ballooned to $28.3 billion and the GDP shrank by a record 7%, the worst contraction since World War II, largely attributed to “Crony Capitalism” of his friends and relatives. The Marcos family is accused of leading one of Asia’s most notorious kleptocracies.

The popularity of Marcos, Jr. can be attributed also to the failure of the education system to teach the martial law experience properly and historically. Voters born after 1986 may not believe the atrocities under Marcos Sr.’s martial law are true . With more than half of the voters are between the ages of 18-41, the effect is significant.

The Philippines also has failed to hold members of the Marcos family accountable for their crimes , a complete failure to institute the rule of law  Aside from his Mother still being free, Bongbong Marcos himself who was convicted of tax evasion in 1997 did not go to jail for it. Throughout his political career, he’s never apologized for rights violations and corruption during his father’s presidency- saying that history is better left “to the professors.”

The ace in Bongbong Marcos hand maybe his running mate, Sara Duterte, President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter who is also leading in the polls. Their tandem as the “continuity ticket “has apparently  indirectly benefited from the perks and the power of the incumbent . In the Philippines, the Vice-President is elected independently.

Their electoral victory will surely shield the elder Duterte from accountability of his human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Rodrigo Duterte openly declared himself as a key Marcos ally and perpetuated the myth of a Marcos golden age while adopting a rhetoric hostile to democracy.

There have been numerous first person anecdotal reports of voters being paid large sums as well as given rice and other forms of assistance and are carted to attend rallies of the Marcos-Duterte tandem.

This is blatant vote buying.

But if opinion polls are to be believed, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos and Sara Duterte are shoo-in to be the next President and Vice-President of the Philippines in the May 9 general elections.

But wait, the Opposition candidate, Leni Robredo is waging a credible and formidable campaign of her own and may defy the odds to be the next female President  of the Philippines. She is giving pause and has unsettled backers of the confident Marcos Jr.’s camp.

Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo is a 56-year-old Filipina human rights lawyer and social activist, a former Congresswoman  who is the 14th and incumbent Vice-President of the Philippines.She is self-effacing and humble. She takes a  public bus weekly  to go back to her hometown. She hails from Naga, Philippines.

Robredo is running on a platform of good governance and transparency. She has been a thorn in Duterte’s side, questioning his war on drugs, his embrace of China and recently the handling of COVID-19. Robredo’s  running mate is Francis “Kiko”Pangilinan, a Senator and head of the Liberal Party.

Her campaign  tagline is : Gobyernong tapat, angat buhay lahat! (translation:’An honest government uplifts everyone’.) Her campaign’s key themes are: competence and  integrity are not hard to sell, but one on one campaign by volunteers is key.

Robredo describes her campaign as a “peoples campaign”citing her supporters’ efforts in organizing her campaign with rallies, campaign paraphernalia, soup kitchens, house to house campaigns, street performances, etc.  Philippine elections’ campaign practice have always been that candidates have to shell out huge sums for organizing the logistics of  rallies and expenditures for campaign materials, pay campaign Team salaries and Rally entertainers   as well as purchase of other give-aways.

To the amazement of political analysts, the reverse has been true of Leni’s campaign. Short on resources, it’s her supporters who are volunteering , donating time, effort and finances to run her campaign and organize her rallies and purchase campaign paraphernalia and give- aways.  Celebrities entertain the crowd  at rallies pro bono 

Leni Robredo appears to be consistent in her use of color to promote her candidacy. She adopted the color hot pink  as her symbol to signify “protest and change.” According to Robredo, pink is “the color of a personality that is open, listening and loving.”

She has an army of passionate and dedicated volunteers who organize her rallies by local Chapters of the volunteer driven Robredo People’s Council (RPC). Weeks out from the May 9th poll, VP Leni Robredo’s supporters are going all out to canvass for votes, including running soup kitchens, knocking on house to house doors and holding street rallies. Her rallies have turned out unbelievably mammoth crowds by the thousands, the size of which can only be gauged by pictures taken by drones. Her rallies are a sea of pink with the size of the crowd from  a  low of 10,000 to the largest of which was estimated to be at least 220,000  The atmosphere in a VP Leni rally is electric. She is treated by her supporters as a ROCK STAR. When she appears on stage, the crowd  goes into a frenz y of excitement. They can’t get enough of her!

VP Leni Robredo counts on the strong support among professional—lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, artists, the LGBTQ, celebrities, businesses, the Roman Catholic Church, other religious

leaders ,students, school  heads and administrators. Even the two  Governors of Davao where Sara Duterte is from  have thrown their support for Leni. People from all walks of life are volunteering for Leni. Individuals are now taking an active and inspired role in the electoral process to educate, generate support and organize huge rallies for their candidate, Leni without any expectations of a handout in return. 

As volunteer driven campaigns go, the “pink wave”is among the most self motivated , with the supporters’ level of intensity, organization and passion described by one campaign strategist as a force to be reckoned with. PR expert, Alan German  said that VP Leni and her Team are no longer running a campaign but are igniting a CRUSADE. It has already become a  MOVEMENT. Marcos Jr.’s tide may just be swept out by the pink wave.” Leni is seen by her supporters as a “symbol of hope” , providing an efficient, clean and trustworthy leadership to put the country  on the right path and away from  the sins of its dark past.

Robredo’s  spokesman, Barry Gutierrez expressed confidence that the numbers were “starting  to reflect what we have been seeing on the ground all along, the massive crowds, the fierce passion, the untiring commitment of Filipinos from all walks of life coming together to rally behind Leni Robredo’s bid for the Presidency”. He added that “with the help of our countrymen who continue to do the work, we will win this!”

In the Philippines’ plurality system, the candidate with the most votes wins. A fragmented opposition may just solidify Marcos Jr.’s lead and hand him an easy victory. Other presidential hopefuls stubbornly insist to stay in the race

Filipinos will troop to the polls on May 9 and with bated breath, they will await the election results to see if it’s out with the “old” and in with the “new” and whether the pink wave will become a pink tide tht will sweep VP Leni  Robredo to victory. The rest of the world will be watching if Democracy is alive and well and  will prevail in the Philippines.

For myself, please pray with me that the May 9 elections will be fair and honest and my countrymen will vote wisely for the god of the Motherland. I hope the elections will reflect the will of the people and will not be stolen, a perennial problem since time immemorial. May the best man or woman win!

Tita Dumagsa is a resident of the Village of Fenney.

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