‘Some call it a circus’: dictator’s son, boxing icon and former actor vie to lead Philippines

A dictator’s son, an actor-turned-mayor, and a champion boxer: an eclectic mix of personalities declared this month that they would compete to become the Philippine’s next president.

More than 60 million Filipinos will go to the polls to decide who should replace the populist leader Rodrigo Duterte, who is nearing the end of his six-year term limit.

“Some call it a circus, I actually call it a fiesta,” says Tony La Viña, Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. “It’s going to be very interesting, with lots of twists and turns.”

The election in May 2022 comes at a crucial time for the Philippines, which has faced one of the worst Covid outbreaks in south-east Asia and has distributed enough vaccine doses to fully protect just under a quarter of the population. The pandemic, and long, punishing lockdown restrictions, have battered the economy.

For Duterte, too, the stakes are especially high. Last month, the international criminal court (ICC) announced that it was investigating his so-called “war on drugs”, in which as many as 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed. A sympathetic successor could adopt his stance of not cooperating with the court.

According to polling by Pulse Asia, his daughter Sara Duterte is currently the frontrunner for the top job. Yet she has denied that she will join the race, and has missed the deadline to file a candidacy – unless she chooses to become a last-minute substitute, as her father did in 2016.

It is expected to be a tight race. Almost neck-and-neck for second place, according to the early polling, is former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, namesake and son of the late dictator, Isko Moreno, a former actor and current Manila mayor, and the senator and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. Behind them, is vice-president Leni Robredo, an outspoken critic of Duterte, and Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief.

“It’s anybody’s game,” says Carmel V Abao, assistant professor in the department of political science at Ateneo de Manila University. The vote, she added, is likely to be referendum on the kind of governance the public wants after almost six years of Duterte in power.

Pacquiao is a champion boxer and national icon, with a rags-to-riches story that resonates with many. He grew up in Mindanao, one of the poorest areas of the country – and also Duterte’s stronghold. He left aged 14 as a stowaway on a boat bound for Manila, and worked in construction jobs, sending money back home, before he was spotted as a talented fighter.

Pacquiao began his political career in 2010, becoming a member of the House of Representatives and, despite a poor attendance record, a senator in 2016.

An evangelical Christian, he has said he opposes divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage. He was widely criticised for stating that people in same-sex relationships “are worse than animals”.

In the past, Pacquiao has fervently defended Duterte, even claiming the president was anointed by God. He supported Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, despite admitting using drugs himself as a teenager. He also helped remove Senator Leila De Lima from her position as chair of the Justice and Human Rights Committee. She is a critic of Duterte who was investigating killings related to anti-drugs operations who has been imprisoned on drugs charges she says are politically motivated.

Relations between Pacquiao and Duterte have since soured, however. Pacquiao has lashed out at Duterte over a recent corruption scandal and accused him of not being tough on China. He has also said he will not block the ICC’s investigation into the war on drugs.

It’s not clear if Pacquiao’s status as a boxing champion will translate into enough votes to win the top job. However, he is expected to weaken Duterte’s loyal base in Mindanao.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, known as Bongbong Marcos, is the namesake and only son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled until 1986 and plundered as much as US$10bn from the state coffers. Under martial law, which was imposed by Marcos in 1972, an estimated 34,000 people were tortured, 3,240 people were killed and 70,000 were imprisoned, according to Amnesty International.

Bongbong Marcos, however, has downplayed the abuses committed under his father.

He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, but reportedly did not complete the course (he was instead awarded a special diploma in social studies, according to Rappler). Then, aged 23, he was elected unopposed as the vice-governor of Ilocos Norte. The family was forced into exile after a peaceful popular revolution in 1986.

Since returning to the country, the family has sought to re-establish its presence in public life, and Bongbong Marcos has since been elected Ilocos Norte governor, a congressman and a senator. In 2016, he ran for vice-president, but lost to Leni Robredo.

The Marcos family remains incredibly powerful, and he has formidable resources at his disposal. He has built a large social media presence that allows him to target younger voters who have no memory of his father’s rule.

Marcos is an ally of Duterte, who controversially allowed his father a hero’s burial. Marcos has said that, under his leadership, the country would act as a non-signatory of the ICC. Members of the court can visit as tourists, he has said.

Vice-president Leni Robredo is a staunch critic of Duterte – including his brutal war on drugs, which she described as leading to “senseless killings”.

The daughter of a judge and an English professor, Robredo previously worked for non-government organisations providing legal assistance to marginalised groups.

It was the death of her husband, interior secretary Jesse Robredo, who was killed in a plane crash in 2012, that prompted a change in career. His death provoked an outpouring of grief and calls for her to enter politics, and she went on to win a seat in Congress in 2013.

Three years later, she beat Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, to become vice-president. She was elected separately from Duterte and the two have had an icy relationship.

She has been an outspoken critic of Duterte’s policies – including the war on drugs, his pro-China stance and, mostly recently, his response to the pandemic. She has also warned of the risks of populist leaders and condemned the legal charges against Nobel prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa.

She has provoked the ire of Duterte and his supporters, and was removed from her position as head of an anti-drugs taskforce just weeks after her appointment.

Robredo has presented herself as the real opposition candidate, and is hoping to capitalise on what analysts have described as growing frustration with the pandemic and economy.

Isko Moreno too grew up in poverty. As a child living in Tondo, one of Manila’s poorest districts, he said he helped his mother by collecting old newspapers and bottles to sell on to a rubbish dealer, and would search for leftover food at restaurants. He was talent spotted aged 18, and went on to forge a career in TV and film, adopting the screen name Isko Moreno (his real name is Francisco Domagoso). Duterte has recently sought to mock him over his past career in showbiz, likening him to “a call boy” for having posed for racy photos.

Moreno began his political career as a councillor in Manila in his early 20s, rising to become vice-mayor, and, in 2019, mayor of the capital. He is known for launching a cleanup campaign in Manila – a policy that involved removing illegal street vendors. He has criticised Duterte’s response to Covid, including the country’s harsh and drawn-out lockdowns. He has also said he will not stop the ICC from investigating Duterte’s war on drugs.

Moreno has presented himself as a “healing” candidate in an attempt to draw support from all sides of the Philippines’ polarised politics. Critics, though, have accused him of fence sitting.

Sara Duterte has said she will not run for president, despite polling by Pulse Asia that suggests she is the frontrunner. Some have speculated that she may enter the race as a substitution and that Ronald dela Rosa, the main enforcer of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, who has filed a candidacy, could be serving as a placeholder.

The younger Duterte’s supporters have claimed she is a better version of her father. She is more organised and less impulsive, they say. She shares the same pugnacious style; she once punched a sheriff four times in the head because he disobeyed her orders. However, her rhetoric is not quite as incendiary as that of her father, who has repeatedly endorsed extra judicial killings.

She has registered her candidacy to be re-elected as mayor of Davao city. The ICC investigation will investigate killings that occurred in Davao between November 2011 and 30 June 2016 – a time period that covers her previous stint as mayor.

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