MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In 2016, we witnessed not only an anti-incumbent elections, which is far from extraordinary, but also an all-out electoral revolt against the fragile and whimpering "elite democracy" that supplanted the Marcos dictatorship three decades earlier.
A significant plurality of voters, especially in the National Capital Region, opted for longtime Mindanao-based mayor Rodrigo Duterte and former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, the sole son of the former strongman.
As candidates, both Mr Duterte and Mr Marcos offered their supporters a politics of decisive leadership rather than a liberal democratic vision.
Mr Duterte boasted about his supposed Singapore-style leadership in Davao, while Mr Marcos couldn't stop praising his father's supposedly great legacy.
Five years on, both the Dutertes and the Marcoses still seem to enjoy immense popularity across the Philippines.
If anything, both sides have corralled a formidable electoral base, also known as the "Solid North" (Marcoses) across northern portions of Luzon, and the more recently consolidated "Solid South" (Dutertes) in Mindanao.
Both online and on the ground, they can rely on a torrent of enthusiastic supporters, unlike most mainstream politicians. And by all indications, the next great contest for power will likely be between the House of Marcos and the House of Duterte.
In the latest Pulse Asia pre-elections survey, conducted between Feb 22 and March 3, presidential daughter Sara "Inday" Duterte and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr are unsurprisingly in the pole position.
The Davao mayor's lead is largely based on the immense "Solid South" support from Mindanao (60 percent) as well as the ABC middle-to-upper-class voters (28 per cent).
Marcos' strength, on the other hand, is in broader Luzon, where close to a fifth of respondents expressed support, as well as the ABC sector (20 per cent).
To be fair, the race is extremely competitive, given the relatively slim share of prospective votes for Ms Duterte (27 per cent) and Mr Marcos (13 per cent).
Should they choose to throw their hats into the ring, Sen Grace Poe (12 per cent), Manila Mayor Isko Moreno (12 per cent), Sen Manny Pacquiao (11 per cent), and Vice President Leni Robredo (7 per cent) are still very much in this race.
At a similar stage in the previous presidential election cycle, then Vice President Jejomar Binay enjoyed a far more formidable lead. And yet, we saw how that early advantage proved a long-term liability, as practically all other eventual candidates zeroed in on derailing Binay's march to Malacañang.
Given the shambolic state of authoritarian populist governance in recent years, one would have expected a better showing for the liberal opposition and democratic centrist candidates.
Political fanaticism is real, but surely it's also hard to ignore the worst economic recession and public health crisis in the region.
For all their foibles and frailties, our reformist-liberal presidents were nowhere close as incompetent in managing major crises throughout the decades. So, what's going on here? Why the opposition's poor showing so far?
There are three interrelated factors that favour the prospect of the first pro-incumbency presidential election in our recent history.
First of all, the Philippines is in the stubborn grip of "authoritarian nostalgia," a profound and widespread yearning for a strong and decisive leader following decades of messy "democratic" contestation among liberal oligarchs.
In a relatively recent Pew Research Centre survey, more than 8 of 10 Filipinos expressed openness to an authoritarian leader who can provide more effective governance.
And this brings me to the second factor, which is the need for the liberal opposition to provide a convincing alternative to authoritarian populism.
Beyond just emphasising public decency and political freedom, they also need a compelling narrative that appeals to the desperate desire of many Filipinos, especially the middle classes, for a decisive and competent leader who can efficiently provide public services as well as law and order.
And finally, crises tend to favour authoritarian politics. The longer the current Covid-19 pandemic and economic recession persists, the more emergency powers and fiscal resources for the populist incumbent, who has every reason to shape the contours of the 2022 elections in favour of an anointed successor and his allies.
Meanwhile, widespread fear and uncertainty during social cataclysms tend to strengthen popular yearning for a "steady hand" at the top. As the most Machiavellian character in "Game of Thrones" put it: "Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder."
- The writer is columnist with the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.