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Personality Politics in the 2022 Philippine Elections

Manny Pacquiao
via Getty Images

Over his 26-year career, Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao has won 62 fights, 12 world titles, and millions of dollars in prize money. Yet, as his time in the UFC ring comes to an end, Pacquiao is gearing up for a different kind of ring: the Philippine presidential election. 

“By the grace of God, I will make sure that every Filipino will win in the fight of Manny Pacquiao,” the Philippine senator said at an opening rally for his campaign in February. Pacquiao promises to battle corruption while continuing the “drug war” policy of strongman President Rodrigo Duterte. Voters, though, have been drawn to Pacquiao’s “rags-to-riches” life story and his renown as a boxing legend—his “Pacman” nickname even adorns a number of housing programs in his policy platform.

Pacquiao is far from the only unconventional personality in the upcoming May 2022 presidential elections. The Philippine capital of Manila is under the mayorship of candidate Isko Moreno, a former actor. Even after his violent drug war led to a human rights investigation by the International Criminal Court, President Duterte himself, despite being term-limited and famously crude, was considered a leading candidate. Above all, there is Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the current front-runner in the race—and the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. According to recent polling, “Bongbong,” as Marcos Jr. is known, commands almost half of all likely voters. Campaigning alongside Sara Duterte (Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter), he has whitewashed his father’s brutal rule while playing off nostalgia and claiming to offer “unifying” leadership. Fifty years after Marcos Sr. first declared martial law, it is entirely possible Marcos Jr. will return his family to the presidential palace.

While Marcos Jr.’s strength of personality may contribute to his lead in the race, it does not fully explain why he—alongside other persona-driven candidates like the Dutertes, Pacquiao, and Moreno—have seen broad electoral and political success. Instead, the Philippines’s political institutions, amplified by social media and the internet, direct public attention towards prioritizing populist personas over concrete policy platforms, aiding Marcos Jr. in a potential restoration of his family’s autocratic dynasty. 

Philippine democratic institutions have had little time to become strongly established. Before 1946, the Philippines spent centuries as a colony of Spain and the United States; its modern democracy has only existed since 1986, when the democratic People Power Revolution ousted Marcos Sr. from office. As a result, many of its institutions—a free press, rule of law, education, and public participation—have not had much time to mature or strengthen. This immaturity was only worsened by Duterte’s presidency: Under the guise of “law and order,” Duterte has actively weakened the media, packed the courts, and passed a broad anti-terror law that essentially permits his government to prosecute anyone under the suspicion of drug trafficking.

Of the Philippine political institutions that have remained intact, many are also inherently flawed. Chief among them is the country’s electoral system, which drastically weakens the power of political parties. The Philippines is the only presidential democracy in the world in which—per the nation’s 1987 Constitution—nearly all officeholders (including presidential and vice-presidential candidates) are elected on a plurality basis. Furthermore, the Philippines’s unique ‘Party-List System’ (PLS) limits the number of seats a political party can win during nationwide elections. Intended to broaden political representation for marginalized groups, the PLS actually works against the idea of proportional representation by constraining party-list groups to just three seats. Hundreds of competing political parties have sprung up across the Philippines, weakening and dividing the power of the party while strengthening individual candidates. The presidential election has consequently turned into a political battle royale where politicians swap party allegiances to get just a few more votes than their opponents or align with the winning party—and where the candidate matters significantly more than their party platform. A falling-out between Pacquiao and President Duterte, for example, led to the two splitting their ruling political party with little political consequence for either. 

Weakening the power of political parties has perpetuated an individual patronage system overseen by a moneyed elite. In the Philippines, political machines are built around a handful of oligarchic families instead of political parties, and family affiliation and personal connections act as arbiters of positions, policies, and prestige. This system has led to widespread vote-buying in the Philippines, giving the wealthiest and best-connected candidates an obvious advantage. It has also led to the rise of political dynasties—like the Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Dutertes—who are able to rely on family connections and name recognition to achieve political victories. The Marcos family’s patronage network runs especially deep: Today, Marcos Jr. builds on the symbolism of his father’s strong state and charismatic persona to appeal to younger audiences who do not remember the political repression of the dictatorship era. 

Given the Philippine system’s emphasis on persona-based politics, media campaigns—especially on social media—hold an outsized influence on the presidential race. 72 percent of Filipinos get their news from social media, with sites like Facebook joining television as a top source of news information. While Filipinos are generally skeptical toward mainstream media outlets, a majority of Internet-connected Filipinos trust social media as a news source, leaving society susceptible to misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric. A number of politicians have leveraged this fact. In his 2016 race, Rodrigo Duterte ran a tightly-managed social media campaign to sell his populism directly to voters. He now continues to use Facebook to drum up support for policies like his “drug war” campaign, often by recruiting trolls and spreading disinformation. Marcos Jr. has taken a page directly from Duterte’s playbook, using Facebook as a tool to rewrite his family’s history and feed lies to a younger demographic. Other candidates, like Moreno and Pacquiao, have also used social media to boost their public image. With Covid-19 preventing candidates from holding in-person events, politicians increasingly turn to social media to share their personalities, if not their policies, with voters. Given their past willingness to misuse social media, going digital could make the 2022 campaign even more divisive than before.

While it may not make for good soundbites, the ultimate victor in 2022 will confront serious policy challenges: the coronavirus pandemic, Duterte’s “drug war,” a slowing economy, and even the very fabric of Philippine democracy. That is not to say policy positions are not being actively discussed and debated in the Philippines. The political opposition is led by Vice President Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer (and one-time Duterte ally) who offers a policy-centric alternative to the crass populism of Duterte or strongman charisma of Marcos Jr. Polls show Robredo likely to receive just 16 percent of the popular vote, far behind Marcos Jr. However, if the currently-fragmented political opposition manages to unite behind Robredo or another candidate, Marcos Jr’s restoration may not be so certain after all.