Marcos, son of strongman, poised for Philippines election triumph


FILE PHOTO: Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lipa, Batangas province, Philippines, April 20, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

MANILA, (Reuters) -Ferdinand Marcos Jr was headed for a stunning victory in the Philippines' presidential election on Monday with double the votes of his nearest rival, putting the son of the notorious late dictator on the cusp of a historic political fightback.

An unofficial tally by the election commission showed Marcos, 64, was close to passing the required 27.5 million votes to secure a majority in a presidential election for the first time since the end of his father's 1965-1986 rule.

The count makes almost certain a previously unthinkable return to power of the Marcos family, 36 years after its humiliating retreat into exile after being toppled in a "people power" uprising.

"I hope you won't get tired of trusting us," Marcos told supporters in remarks streamed on Facebook, a platform at the heart of his campaign strategy.

"We have plenty of things to do," he said, adding "an endeavour as large as this does not involve one person."

Marcos Jr had 26.3 million votes, more than double the 12.5 million votes for Leni Robredo, the vice president, with 81.8% of the eligible ballots counted, according to the unofficial Commission on Elections (COMELEC) tally.

Despite its fall from grace, the Marcos family returned from exile in the 1990s and has since been a powerful force in politics, retaining its influence with vast wealth and far-reaching connections.

Marcos Jr has served as a governor, congressman and senator, his sister, Imee, is currently a senator and mother Imelda, the influential power-broker and widow of the late dictator, served four terms in the House of Representatives.

STRONGMAN APPROACH

Marcos has presented no real policy platform, campaigning on a simple but ambiguous message of unity.

His presidency is expected to provide continuity from outgoing leader Rodrigo Duterte, whose ruthless, strongman approach proved popular and helped him to consolidate power rapidly.

A major boon has been Marcos securing Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, as his running mate, tapping her father's support and helping him to make inroads in new voter territory.

The unofficial tally showed Duterte-Carpio winning the vice presidency by a massive margin.

Marcos was criticised for skipping presidential debates and made few media appearances during the campaign, enabling him to limit scrutiny and control his message via a network of influencers and bloggers granted broad access to his events.

The results demonstrate the huge success of a sophisticated social media operation by Marcos, which critics say has sought to discredit historical accounts of cronyism, plunder and brutality during his father's authoritarian rule, about half of which was under martial law.

The Marcos family denies siphoning off billions of dollars of state wealth during its time at the helm of what historians consider one of Asia's most famous kleptocracies.

Many of Marcos's supporters, born after the 1986 uprising, are convinced those past narratives were lies peddled by his opponents.

UNITY PREVAILED

As the votes poured in, supporters gathered outside the Marcos campaign headquarters, jumping, waving flags and chanting "Marcos, Marcos, Marcos" ecstatically.

"We are very happy because of his wide lead... unity really prevailed," said Melai Ilagan, 20.

"Bongbong Marcos's wish that we all unite is becoming a reality."

The early count indicates Marcos will avenge his loss to Robredo in the 2016 vice presidential election, a narrow defeat by just 200,000 votes that he sought unsuccessfully to overturn.

The two have a bitter rivalry and embody a political chasm that has existed more than four decades, with Robredo allied with the movement that toppled the elder Marcos.

About 65 million Filipinos were eligible to cast ballots to decide on the successor to Duterte after six years in power, plus thousands of other posts, from lawmakers and governors to city mayors and councillors.

COMELEC declared the election to have been "relatively peaceful" and documented 15 security incidents, including what police said was the killing of three members of a peacekeeping force near a polling station in the south.

A high turnout caused long queues, exacerbated in some areas by malfunctions in 533 of the 106,000 counting machines being used, prompting concerns from candidates that COMELEC sought to assuage.

The National Union of People's Lawyers, whose members include people persecuted under Marcos senior's martial law era, said the election outcome was "beyond easy comprehension", and took aim at what it said was Marcos's historical revisionism.

"Fact can really be stranger than fiction. Or to be more precise, fiction can be repackaged into fact," it said in a statement.

"We shall carry on the fight even more intensely and await our redemption from this resurrected nightmare."

(Reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Additional reporting by Eloisa Lopez, Adrian Portugal and Enrico dela Cruz; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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