BATAC CITY, Philippines: Millions of Filipinos thronged polling stations Monday to elect a new president, with the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos the favorite to win the high-stakes election.
Nearly 40 years after the patriarch was deposed by a popular revolt and the family chased into exile, Ferdinand Marcos Junior looks set to complete their remarkable comeback from pariahs to the peak of political power.
Ten candidates are vying to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte in elections seen by many as a make-or-break moment for the Philippines’ fragile democracy.
But only Marcos Jr and his rival Leni Robredo, the incumbent vice president, have a credible chance of winning.
People wearing masks began forming long queues before dawn to cast their votes when polling stations opened across the archipelago.
At Mariano Marcos Memorial Elementary School in the northern city of Batac, the ancestral home of the Marcoses, voters waved hand fans to cool their faces in the tropical heat.
Bomb sniffer dogs swept the polling station before Marcos Jr arrived with his younger sister Irene and eldest son Sandro.
They were followed by the family’s flamboyant 92-year-old matriarch Imelda, who was lowered from a white van while wearing a long red top with matching trousers and slip-on flats.
Sandro, 28, who is running for elected office for the first time in a congressional district in Ilocos Norte province, admitted the family’s history was “a burden”.
But he added: “It’s one that we also try to sustain and protect and better as we serve.”
Casting her ballot for Robredo at a school in Magarao municipality, in the central province of Camarines Sur, Corazon Bagay said the former congresswoman “deserves” to win.
“She has no whiff of corruption allegations,” said the 52-year-old homemaker.
“She’s not a thief. Leni is honest.”
Supporters chanting “Leni, Leni” greeted Robredo as she arrived at the same school to vote.
Turnout is expected to be high among the over 65 million Filipinos eligible to vote.
“The long lines are magnificent. Filipinos wanted to be heard and heard loudly,” said George Garcia of the Commission on Elections.
Nearly 2,000 vote counting machines had malfunctioned across the country, he said. There are more than 70,000 polling stations.
At the end of a bitter campaign, polls showed Marcos Jr heading towards a landslide. He had a double-digit lead over Robredo in the latest surveys and she will need a low turnout of Marcos Jr voters or a late surge of support to score an upset.
In the Philippines, the winner only has to get more votes than anyone else.
Since Robredo announced her bid for the top job in October, volunteer groups have mushroomed across the country seeking to convince voters to back what they see as a battle for the country’s soul.
But relentless whitewashing of the elder Marcos’s brutal and corrupt regime, support of rival elite families and public disenchantment with post-Marcos governments have fueled the scion’s popularity.
After six years of Duterte’s authoritarian rule, rights activists, Catholic church leaders and political analysts fear Marcos Jr will be emboldened to rule with an even heavier fist if he wins by a large margin.
“We think it will worsen the human rights crisis in the country,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of human rights alliance Karapatan.
While Marcos Jr had a 75 percent chance of winning, the outcome was not guaranteed, according to Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford, who said potential complacency among his supporters could work in Robredo’s favor.
Robredo, a 57-year-old lawyer and economist, has promised to clean up the dirty style of politics that has long plagued the feudal and corrupt democracy, where a handful of surnames hold sway.
Marcos Jr and running mate Sara Duterte — both offspring of authoritarian leaders — have insisted they are best qualified to “unify” the country, though what that means is unclear.
Hundreds of thousands of red-clad supporters turned out at Marcos Jr and Duterte’s raucous rally in Manila on Saturday, as they made a last push for votes.
Josephine Llorca said it was worth betting on another Marcos because successive governments since the 1986 revolution that ousted the family had failed to improve the lives of the poor.
“We tried it and they were even worse than the Marcoses’ time,” she said.
Surveys indicate Marcos Jr, 64, will win more than half the votes, which would make him the first presidential candidate to secure an absolute majority since his father was overthrown.
Political analyst Richard Heydarian warned such a big win could enable Marcos Jr to make constitutional changes to entrench his power and weaken democratic checks and balances.
“(Rodrigo) Duterte never had the discipline and wherewithal to push his authoritarian agenda to its logical extreme,” Heydarian said.
“That historic opportunity could fall on the lap of the Marcoses.”
Other candidates seeking the presidency include boxing legend Manny Pacquiao and former street scavenger turned actor Francisco Domagoso.
Personality rather than policy typically influences many people’s choice of candidate, though vote-buying and intimidation are also perennial problems in Philippine elections.
More than 60,000 security personnel have been deployed to protect polling stations and election workers.
Shortly after voting got under way, three security guards were killed when gunmen opened fire at a polling station in a restive region of the southern island of Mindanao, police said.
That followed a grenade attack on Sunday in the same province that left nine people wounded.
Allegations of dirty tactics marred the final week of the campaign, as Marcos Jr warned of electoral fraud while Robredo accused him of being a “liar”.
In a rousing speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters on Saturday, Robredo declared: “Victory awaits us.”
Whatever the result, though, Marcos Jr opponents have already vowed to pursue efforts to have him disqualified over a previous tax conviction and extract billions of dollars in estate taxes from his family.
“It’s another crossroads for us,” said Judy Taguiwalo, 72, an anti-Marcos activist who was arrested twice and tortured during the elder Marcos’s regime.
“We need to continue to stand up and struggle.”