Massive turnout in Philippines election reflects ferocious fight between Marcos Jr, Robredo

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MANILA - More than 65 million Filipinos marched to polling precincts on Monday (May 9) to elect their next president, with the son of a late dictator the odds-on favourite to win, but also with a stunning upset not at all impossible. 

Voters swarmed their precincts even before polling started at 6am – queueing under the already searing morning sun for hours – to make sure their votes would count in what was seen as the most consequential and most contested election in Philippine history in more than 30 years.

Mr Ferdinand Marcos Jr, 64, is tipped to emerge as the Philippines' 17th president, with pundits putting his odds of winning at 75 per cent.

He leads his nearest rival, Vice-President Leni Robredo, 57, by more than 30 percentage points in opinion polls.

But Ms Robredo's supporters believe the gap is much narrower, citing the mammoth turnout in her political rallies, the fervour shown by her mostly young volunteers, and flaws in the surveys.

"Victory is far from assured for Marcos though - hence the 25 per cent odds for Robredo. Low turnout would probably favour Robredo rather than Marcos, given the risk of complacency among the latter's supporters," said Mr Peter Mumford, the Eurasia Group's lead analyst for South and South-east Asia.

He said Ms Robredo "clearly has momentum, as evidenced by the enormous crowds attending her rallies".

Exit polls from 2016 also suggested that a third of voters settled on a candidate only in the final 10 days, and that pre-election polls reflected a much lower number of late deciders.

Still, "it is a big gap to close", said Mr Mumford.

Monday’s massive voter turnout early in the day reflected how ferociously fought this year's political contest has been, largely because of what the top two leading candidates represent.

Mr Marcos Jr represents the stunning return to power of a family that court records and historical accounts hold responsible for mass killings and institutionalised kleptocracy during the 20-year reign of his father that ended in 1986, when a military-backed civilian revolt forced the Marcoses to flee the Philippines.

He has also styled himself as the "continuity candidate", one who would pursue Mr Rodrigo Duterte's policies, including his bloody drug war and rapprochement with China.

Ms Robredo, on the other hand, is heir to the 1986 pro-democracy movement that ousted Marcos Sr.

She has been pushing back against the Marcoses' narrative that the Marcos years were marked by peace and prosperity, and that the 1986 revolt was nothing more than a coup orchestrated by a powerful minority.

Ms Robredo has also said that she will roll back many of Mr Duterte's actions.

Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr votes at Mariano Marcos Memorial Elementary School on May 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

These political differences have driven a wedge among families and friends.

Mr Benjamin Esguerra, 74, a pensioner, said he voted for Ms Robredo “because of all the candidates, she’s the one who is most well-known for her track record and her achievements”. 

“This country needs someone who is honest, has integrity, morality and capability,” he said.

But he said his wife, who is a member of the influential Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), likely voted for Mr Marcos Jr.

People cast their ballots inside a Catholic chapel used as a voting centre in Quezon City, Manila, on May 9, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mr Vic Carpio, 48, who owns a small fleet of ride-sharing cars, said he found himself in the minority in his neighbourhood.

“My neighbours all had these tarps for Leni. But I’m voting for (Marcos Jr) because I think he’s sincere in wanting to turn things around, despite what they’re saying about him and his past,” he said.

Even those who were too old to walk on their own and the infirm – those most vulnerable to the coronavirus still spreading through the population – found ways to vote.

“It’s been difficult, but it’s important that I vote,” said Mr Augusto Fabello, 64, a retiree.

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Before noon, the top candidates had already cast their ballots, though they, too, had to suffer through the snafus that marred the early hours of Polling Day.

Mr Marcos Jr was first to vote, arriving at his precinct at around 8am and being done with it in minutes.

Ms Robredo showed up to vote just before noon, held up for two hours by the winding queue and slow process at her polling place.

“We have lawyers on standby. We have to report and document everything we’re seeing outside of the norm,” Ms Robredo told reporters when asked about the hours-long wait, faulty voting machines and questionable ballots.

She added: “The last thing we want is to see the integrity of our election crumble because this is what creates disorder.”

In the race to be vice-president, Ms Sara Duterte-Carpio, 46, Mr Marcos Jr's running mate and outgoing President Duterte's daughter, is forecast to likewise win by a landslide with a lead of more than 40 percentage points over the second-placer, Senate President Tito Sotto, 73.

Philippine Vice-President and presidential candidate Leni Robredo speaks during a rally in Makati City, on May 7, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Voting is set to close at 7pm local time, with counting set to start after that.

Unofficial results might be released as soon as a few hours via live vote count. But in the 2016 elections, Mr Duterte was officially proclaimed winner only after three weeks from Polling Day.

Voters will also be picking 12 senators, 253 district representatives and some 18,000 governors, vice-governors, mayors, vice-mayors, provincial board members, and city and town councillors.

Some 67.5 million Filipinos have registered to vote in this year's election, over 13 million more than in 2016. Close to two million who are living overseas have already cast their ballots.

With additional reporting by Dana Batnag

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