Philippine election season kicks off with TV celebrities, political scions among candidates

A fan supporting senator and boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, who is planning to run for president, in Manila on Oct 1, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippines' election season kicked off on Friday (Oct 1) with TV celebrities, political scions and at least one inmate expected to be among thousands of candidates vying for posts from president to town councillor.

A week-long registration process launches a typically noisy and deadly seven months of campaigning for more than 18,000 positions - but the raging Covid-19 pandemic and economic misery caused by harsh lockdowns could dampen the party atmosphere.

A successor to President Rodrigo Duterte, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a second six-year term, will be elected in the May ballot that is expected to draw more than 60 million voters.

Mr Duterte, who polls show remains almost as popular as when he was swept to victory in 2016 on a promise to rid the country of drugs, has declared he will run for the vice-presidency.

Among the front runners to replace him are his daughter Sara and ally Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, son and namesake of the country's former dictator.

Former actor and city mayor Francisco Domagoso - known by his screen name Isko Moreno - and newly retired boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao are planning to run.

Election campaigns in the famously chaotic democracy are normally raucous and star-studded with contenders deploying celebrities to pull crowds to rallies.

Candidates are expected to perform on stage, with their charisma, singing and dancing skills judged more harshly than their policies.

"It is a circus," political analyst Tony La Vina told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "People have a sense that in this brief moment, they are the boss, to be wooed by suitors whom they demand sing, dance, act as clowns."

This election season could be less festive, analysts said - though probably just as deadly as some politicians resort to violence to eliminate rivals despite a gun ban.

Campaigning will be "largely" on social media platforms, Mr La Vina predicted, as surging infections and the glacial pace of vaccinations restrict mass gatherings.

In a country where personality and name recognition are key to winning votes, that could improve the chances of lesser-known candidates, said Manila's Ateneo School of Government dean Ronald Mendoza.

"If you are a relative nobody with some money for social media and some following, you may actually get a not insignificant number of votes," he added.

But they will face the enduring challenge in Philippine politics of powerful clans who dominate national, provincial and local posts in the absence of a strong party system.

Manila mayor Francisco Domagoso speaking at the official announcement of his presidential bid in the 2022 national elections in Baseco, Manila on Sept 22, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Deep pockets - and huge donations - are essential in the country plagued by poverty, corruption and a historic culture of patronage.

"The electoral workers can still go door to door buying votes," a long-time observer of Philippine politics told AFP. "The money just flows like water."

'Teflon Duterte'

As political jockeying intensified ahead of the opening of registrations, analyst Richard Heydarian said it was too early to pick a likely winner in the presidential race, which has "inherent unpredictabilities".

"This is just a single round, first past the post - there's no run-off elections, all you need to do is win more votes than everyone else," said Mr Heydarian. "Much will depend on who's going to run, much will depend on how many are going to run, much will depend on presidential debates (and) what kind of antics the candidates are going to pull."

Mr Duterte has not yet announced his preferred successor - a perennial preoccupation for outgoing Philippine presidents seeking to avoid arrest. Many expect it will be Ms Sara Duterte, who would likely protect Mr Duterte from criminal charges in the Philippines and International Criminal Court prosecutors probing his deadly drug war.

But the mayor of the southern city of Davao - a position held by her father before he became president - has said she would not run if Mr Duterte sought the vice-presidency.

That is probably a tactic to generate publicity because Filipinos "love a reluctant candidate", University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Franco told AFP.

Even if Ms Duterte misses the Oct 8 deadline for registration, she still has until Nov 15 to make a late entry - as her father did in 2015.

A presidential endorsement would normally be a "kiss of death" for the recipient, said Mr Jorge Tigno of pollster Social Weather Stations.

But Mr Duterte's net satisfaction rating among adults was 62 per cent in June, compared with 64 per cent in September 2016, its surveys showed.

"He's known as 'Teflon Duterte' for a reason," said Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford. "He tends to shake off most accusations of impropriety or extrajudicial killings."

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