The stakes are high: If Robredo’s opponent, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., clinches the presidency, as surveys suggest, it will mark a stunning about-face for a nation where millions poured out into the streets in 1986 to force out a dictator, Marcos’s father, whose legacy continues to shadow his son.
Followers from diverse backgrounds — families with grandparents and children, doctors, activists, Catholic priests and nuns, TV and movie stars, farmers and students — have joined Robredo’s fiesta-like campaign rallies in the tens of thousands. She called the movement a “pink revolution” after the color worn by her volunteers.
The large crowds, as well as drone shots and videos posted online by followers, evoke memories of the massive but largely peaceful 1986 “People Power” uprising that toppled strongman Ferdinand Marcos in an Asian democratic milestone that awed the world.
While the rallying call then was to bring back democracy after years of a brutal and corrupt dictatorship, the battle cry of Robredo’s supporters is a promise to bring good and corruption-free governance with her as the reformist torchbearer.
“We’ve been wanting good governance, honest, hard-working government officials, who genuinely care for the people, and she’s finally here,” said Nica del Rosario, a 32-year-old musician. “Let’s not waste this chance because somebody like her doesn’t come very often.”
With her colleagues, del Rosario wrote and sang two campaign songs for Robredo, including “Rosas” — Tagalog for roses — a tribute to the opposition leader’s patriotic and humble brand of hands-on politics that has become an emotional anthem to her followers. The song has been streamed more than 3.9 million times on Spotify in just two months, and has been widely shared on Facebook and YouTube and driven supporters to tears at rallies.
But Robredo is fighting an uphill electoral battle against Marcos’s son and namesake, who has topped voter-preference surveys with a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Robredo remains in second place in independent surveys for the 10-way presidential race, far behind Marcos Jr., with just a week before 67 million registered voters pick the next Philippine leader on May 9.
Marcos Jr. topped the latest poll by Pulse Asia released on Monday with 56% support while Robredo received 23%. The other candidates lagged far behind in the April 16-21 survey, which polled 2,400 Filipinos of voting age nationwide with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Marcos Jr.’s candidacy has been bolstered by his vice presidential running mate, Sara Duterte, the daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, who has remained popular despite his bloody crackdown on illegal drugs and dismal human rights record that has left thousands dead since 2016.
“There is still a possibility that people will change their decision,” Pulse Asia President Ronald Holmes said of voter preferences. It’s also hard to capture the effect of word-of-mouth and house-to-house campaigns, he said.
Activists who helped oust Marcos 36 years ago fear Philippine history will be upended if his son takes over a country long seen as an Asian bulwark of democracy. Marcos Jr., a 64-year-old former senator, has defended his father’s legacy and steadfastly refuses to acknowledge or apologize for the widespread abuses and plunder that scarred the Philippines during his martial law rule. Courts in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as government investigations have offered indisputable evidence of that period.
“My worst fear is the return of the Marcoses … because we will face global condemnation. People will be asking us, ‘Haven’t you learned? You said in ’86 never again and now he’s back. So what are you telling us?’” said Florencio Abad, a political detainee in the 1970s under Marcos who later served in top government posts after the dictator’s downfall and now advises Robredo’s campaign.
Robredo, 57, a former congresswoman and mother of three, is running independently and does not belong to any of the country’s entrenched political dynasties and wealthy land-owning clans.
She has been cited for integrity and simplicity in the poverty- and corruption-plagued Southeast Asian nation, where two presidents had been accused of plunder and overthrown, including the elder Marcos, who died in U.S. exile in 1989. A third was detained for nearly four years on a similar allegation but was eventually cleared.
Like her late husband, a respected politician who died in a plane crash in 2012, Robredo’s appeal lies in shunning the trappings of power. As a congresswoman, she would regularly travel alone by bus from her province to the capital and back, often at night, using the long trip to sleep.
Aside from their electoral rivalry, Robredo and Marcos Jr. are on opposite sides of history.
As a student at the state-run University of the Philippines in the 1980s, Robredo joined anti-Marcos protests that culminated in the 1986 democratic uprising.
In 2016, she narrowly defeated Marcos Jr. in a cliffhanger race for vice president in their first electoral faceoff. He waged a years-long unsuccessful legal battle to invalidate her victory for alleged fraud and still refuses to concede.
Without the enormous logistics required for a presidential campaign, Robredo did not initially plan to seek the top post but changed her mind at the last minute last year after Marcos Jr. announced his candidacy and talks to field a single opposition candidate fell apart. The emergence of campaign volunteers was a lifeline, according to her allies.
“She did not have any machinery and it was really the volunteers who were energizing the entire campaign,” said Georgina Hernandez, who coordinates nationwide volunteer efforts for Robredo.
Robredo’s army of volunteers, which Hernandez says numbers close to 2 million, initially engaged in all sorts of campaigning — from turning roadside walls into pink-colored murals with her portrait and mottos to providing free medical and legal services to running soup kitchens for the poor.
Mary Joan Buan, a volunteer campaigner who also joined the 1986 revolt, said opposing the rise of another Marcos to the presidency decades after the dictator was ousted has become more complex given a well-funded campaign to refurbish the Marcos family image that began on social media several years ago.
“Many rely on social media now and use platforms like TikTok for information so it’s doubly challenging,” Buan said while going door-to-door for Robredo in a depressed Manila neighborhood. A few residents bluntly told her group they were rooting for BBM, a popularized reference to Marcos Jr. that does not mention his family name.
University of the Philippines sociologist Randy David said the rare and spontaneous volunteer movement that emerged for Robredo is a red flag for potential tyrants.
“Traditional politicians are wary of the unlimited potential of social movements to shape electoral outcomes as well as of their capacity to take new forms and persist beyond elections,” David wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading Manila daily. “But it is autocrats who fear them most — because they almost always carry within them the seeds of regime change.”