MANILA - Campaigning for the Philippines' general election officially kicked off on Tuesday (Feb 8), turning up the heat on an already divisive polls overshadowed by memories of a dark era in the country's recent past and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the 64-year-old son and namesake of the late dictator, is leading a pack of nine other candidates who are seeking to replace President Rodrigo Duterte three months from now.
He appears set to win by a landslide as polls show that more than 50 per cent of voters favour him, completing a revival of the Marcos family's political brand that has been more than 35 years in the making.
Arrayed against the front runner are the same political forces that rose against his father and forced his family to flee the Philippines in 1986.
Their candidate is Vice-President Leni Robredo, 56, who has already defeated Mr Marcos in the 2016 race for the vice-presidency but now trails him by a wide margin in the polls.
Mr Marcos - who in 1986 was just a 28-year-old lanky, long-haired playboy - has anchored his family's unlikely comeback on voters dissatisfied with how the Philippines has been run since his father was booted out of power in 1986 after a military-backed civilian revolt.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr presided over a regime that, according to court and historical records, killed and tortured thousands and stole roughly US$10 billion in government treasure over more than 20 years of authoritarian rule.
He died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, but his wife, Imelda, and children, including the current presidential candidate, were subsequently allowed to return home. They have since managed to claw back the political influence they lost.
The rise of social media has allowed the Marcoses to rewrite the narrative.
Most of the candidate's followers - empowered in echo chambers and by confirmation biases enabled by Facebook and other social media platforms - are dismissing documented evidence and accounts against the family as either propaganda or overblown.
Mr Marcos himself has been hammering this point on the campaign trail.
"This is not the time and place to be arguing about the history of the Philippines," he said during a recent television interview.
Hoping to roll back the tide, Ms Robredo - who now leads the political party that sprang out of the 1986 anti-Marcos revolt - is herself taking to social media in an uphill battle to remind voters of the years of crippling economic decline, rampant corruption and civil rights abuses that were the hallmarks of the years when the dictator was in office.
In a synchronised effort, her supporters on Tuesday changed their Facebook profile and cover photos to a plain pink background with a tiny rose at one corner, or variations of it, to signal a "pink wave' that has come to characterise her campaign.
Kicking off her run for the presidency in Lupi town in the central province of Camarines Sur, she told supporters that she was "filled with courage because you are with me".
There are eight other candidates running for president, including world boxing legend Manny Pacquiao and Manila's popular mayor and former celebrity Isko Moreno.
But none of them comes close to Mr Marcos' polling numbers. Even if all their votes are combined based on the current polls, that will still not be enough to overcome Mr Marcos' lead if the election were held today.
But all are hoping that with the official launch of the campaign period, they can woo enough voters to shore up their chances.
Mr Moreno likens himself to the biblical David facing off against Goliath, the Philistine giant.
"The Davids of this world have beaten those who are bigger, stronger, more popular," he told reporters.
But he, Ms Robredo and the other candidates are running out of time, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic changes the rules of the game and shifts the key battleground from the streets to social media.
The number of Covid-19 infections in the country has plunged in recent weeks, but health protocols are still in place, dampening the colourful, sometimes chaotic, and often circus-like atmosphere on the streets that marked previous elections.
Polls officials have barred political parties from holding large, tightly packed rallies.
Candidates have also been told of the "no handshakes, no kissing, no selfies, no handouts" rules.
"The salient point is no close contact or person-to-person contact campaigning. No kisses, handshakes, selfies and no handouts," Interior Minister Eduardo Ano said in a radio interview on Monday.
Those rules are forcing candidates to scuttle rallies, motorcades, and house-to-house campaigns, and spend more campaign funds on TV and radio ads and in social media blitzes.
Political analysts fret that social media's outsized role in the election is only deepening the divisions among Filipino voters as platforms such as Facebook and Twitter fail to rein in a tidal wave of lies, deception, misinformation and hateful speeches that overwhelm civil discourse.
Social media had become a "hyper partisan" space that has blighted a democratic process, University of the Philippines communications research professor Marie Fatima Gaw has been quoted as saying.
In all, there are some 18,000 candidates taking part in the general election in which voters will also choose a vice-president, senators, governors, mayors, vice-mayors, congressmen, as well as city council and provincial board members.
Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr, 64
Former governor, congressman, senator, son and namesake of the late dictator.
Leni Robredo, 56
Vice-president, former congressman and human rights lawyer who entered politics after her husband - a former mayor and Cabinet minister - died in a plane crash.
Francisco 'Isko Moreno' Domagoso, 47
Mayor of Manila who parlayed his fame as a movie heart-throb and his background as a slum survivor into a thriving political career.
Manny Pacquiao, 43
A senator, and the only man to hold boxing titles in eight different divisions.
Panfilo Lacson, 73
A senator who, as police chief, implemented former president Joseph Estrada's anti-crime drive.
Ernesto Abella, 72
Former spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte who also served as under-secretary of the Foreign Ministry.
Leody De Guzman, 62
Unionist and labour rights activists who was president of the Philippines' largest federation of militant labour unions.
Norberto Gonzales, 74
Former defence minister and national security adviser under former president Gloria Arroyo.
A businessman from Lanao del Sur, a Muslim-majority province, who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in 2019.
Jose Montemayor Jr
A cardiologist and lawyer.