Philippines vote: Volunteers back reformers against dictator’s son

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) – A supporter wrote a stirring campaign song that has been played nearly 4 million times on Spotify. Other volunteers are raiding Filipino villages and going door-to-door to support Vice President Leni Robredo in next week’s presidential election.

The stakes are high: If Robredo’s opponent, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., wins the presidency, as polls suggest, it will be a stunning turnaround for a nation that poured millions in 1986 to oust a dictator and Marcos’ father to force the country whose legacy continues to shadow his son.

Supporters from diverse backgrounds — families with their grandparents and children, doctors, activists, Catholic priests and nuns, TV and movie stars, farmers and students — have joined tens of thousands in Robredo’s fiesta-like campaign rallies. She dubbed the nascent movement a “pink revolution,” after the color worn by its volunteers.

The huge crowds, as well as drone footage and videos posted online by supporters, bring back memories of the massive but largely peaceful “People Power” uprising of 1986 that toppled strongman Ferdinand Marcos in an Asian democratic milestone that wowed the world .

While the rallying cry then was to bring back democracy after years of brutal and corrupt dictatorship, the rallying cry of Robredo’s supporters is a promise to bring good and corruption-free governance with her as the new reformist torchbearer.

“We wanted good governance, honest, hard-working government officials who really care about people, and it’s finally here,” said Nica del Rosario, a 32-year-old musician. “Let’s not waste this chance because someone like her doesn’t come around often.”

With her colleagues, del Rosario wrote and sang two campaign songs for Robredo, including “Rosas” – Tagalog for roses – a tribute to the opposition leader’s patriotic and humble way of practical politics that has become an emotional anthem for her supporters. The song was streamed more than 3.9 million times on Spotify in just two months, went viral on Facebook and YouTube, and had fans crying at rallies.

But Robredo is fighting an uphill campaign against Marcos’ son and namesake, who has topped voting preference polls by a seemingly insurmountable margin.

Robredo remained second in independent polls for the 10-way presidential race, well behind Marcos Jr. just a week before 67 million registered voters choose their next leader on May 9.

Marcos Jr. topped Pulse Asia’s latest poll with 56% support, although his lower-middle-range rating fell slightly, and Robredo was second with 24% after a nine-point rise. The other candidates fell far behind in the March 17-21 poll of 2,400 voting-age Filipinos nationwide, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Marcos Jr.’s candidacy was supported by his vice presidential nominee Sara Duterte, daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, who has remained popular despite her bloody crackdown on illicit drugs and dismal human rights record, which has claimed thousands of lives since 2016.

“There’s still a chance that people will change their minds,” Pulse Asia president Ronald Holmes said of voter preferences. It’s also difficult to capture the impact of word of mouth and door-to-door campaigns, he said.

Activists who helped overthrow Marcos 36 years ago fear Philippine history would be turned on its head if his son took over a country long considered Asia’s bulwark of democracy. Marcos Jr., a 64-year-old former senator, has defended his father’s legacy and steadfastly refuses to acknowledge and apologize for the widespread abuse and looting that scarred the Philippines during his martial law rule. Courts in the US and the Philippines, as well as government investigations, have provided indisputable evidence of this period.

“My greatest fear is the return of the Marcoses… because we will be judged worldwide. People will ask us, “Didn’t you study? You said ’86 never again and now he’s back. So what are you telling us?’” said Florencio Abad, a political prisoner in the 1970s under Marcos who later served in high government posts after the dictator’s fall and now advises Robredo’s campaign.

Robredo, 57, a former congresswoman and mother of three, rules independently and does not belong to any of the country’s established political dynasties or wealthy landowning clans.

She has been cited for her integrity and simplicity in the poverty- and corruption-plagued Southeast Asian nation, where two presidents had been accused of looting and ousted, including the elderly Marcos, who died in US exile in 1989. A third was jailed for nearly four years on a similar allegation but was eventually cleared.

Like her late husband, a respected politician who died in a plane crash in 2012, Robredo’s appeal lies in eschewing the trappings of power. As a congresswoman, she regularly rode the bus from her province to the capital and back alone, often at night to use the long journey to sleep.

Aside from their electoral rivalry, Robredo and Marcos Jr. are on opposite sides of the story.

As a student at the Philippine State University in the 1980s, Robredo had joined the anti-Marcos protests that culminated in the 1986 Democratic Uprising.

In 2016, she narrowly defeated Marcos Jr. in a cliffhanger race for vice president in her first campaign. He waged a years-long and unsuccessful legal battle to invalidate her victory over the alleged scam and still refuses to back down.

Without the massive logistics required for a presidential campaign, Robredo originally had no intention of aspiring to the top spot, but changed her mind at the last minute last year after Marcos Jr. announced his candidacy and talks to nominate a single opposition candidate collapsed was. The emergence of campaign volunteers was a lifeline, according to her allies.

“She had no machines and it was really the volunteers who powered the whole campaign,” said Georgina Hernandez, who coordinates Robredo’s nationwide volunteer efforts.

Robredo’s army of volunteers, which Hernandez says numbers nearly 2 million, initially got involved in everything from turning roadsides into pink murals with her portrait and slogans, to providing free medical and legal services to running soup kitchens for the poor .

But most have turned to door-to-door campaigning, organizing star-studded rallies as Election Day approaches, she said.

Mary Joan Buan, a volunteer activist who also joined the 1986 revolt, said opposition to the rise of another Marcos to the presidency decades after the dictator’s ouster was amid a well-funded campaign to refresh Marcos’ family image, which started to become more complex on social media several years ago.

“A lot of people now rely on social media and use platforms like TikTok for information, so it’s a double challenge,” Buan said while going door-to-door for Robredo in a depressed Manila neighborhood. A few residents bluntly told their group that they were cheering for BBM, a popular reference to Marcos Jr. that doesn’t mention his family name.

University of the Philippines sociologist Randy David said the rare and spontaneous volunteer movement that arose for Robredo was a red flag for potential bullies.

“Traditional politicians are concerned about the unlimited potential of social movements to influence election outcomes and their ability to take new forms and persist beyond elections,” David wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading Manila newspaper. “But it’s autocrats they fear most – because they almost always carry within them the seeds of regime change.”

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Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila contributed to this report.

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