Philippine Elections 2022: The Sentimental Masks of Marcos and Robredo.

AuthorEspiritu, Talitha

Contemporary scholarship on the Marcos family's return to power emphasizes the resurrection of the late dictator's image as an instrument to stir nostalgia for the supposed "golden age" of the Philippine economy and society. (1) The 2022 presidential election, a re-staging of the 2016 vice-presidential rivalry between Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Leni Robredo, not only demonstrated the candidates' command for conjuring images of the melodramatic contest for grassroots support between Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and Corazon Aquino--but also their ability to shed these images at will when these images did not serve that purpose.

In July 2020, Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower Brittany Kaiser revealed to journalist Maria Ressa that Marcos Jr. directly approached the political data company before the 2016 elections to "rebrand" the Marcos family's image on social media. (2) As a result, since 2016, Marcos Jr. has adopted the moniker "BBM", the acronym of his childhood nickname, Bongbong Marcos, by which most Filipinos referred to him when his father was still alive. The acronym strategically downplays his much-reviled surname. Kaiser's revelations supported Ressa's findings that massive propaganda and targeted disinformation operations aided Marcos' resurgence in national politics. (3)

In Robredo and Marcos Jr.'s 2022 presidential contest, campaign materials and related media images reworked the melodramatic strategies of the 1986 contest between Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and Corazon Aquino. However, the 2022 iteration of that political drama ended in a reversal of fortune, with Marcos Jr. appearing to vindicate his father. The role of data-mining and disinformation campaigns (4) in this turn of events only partially explains this spectacular outcome. What remains unclear is how the voting public's change of heart--on a massive scale--appeared to have taken place, enough to persuade them to embrace a data-driven rebranding of the Marcos legacy.

Kaiser described the Marcoses' efforts to rebrand their family as historical revisionism fuelled by the use of online data: "You undertake just enough research to figure out what people believe about a certain [...] individual [...] and then you figure out what could convince them to feel otherwise." (5) Kaiser's statement highlights the importance of feelings--more precisely, the transformation of emotions--in political rebranding. We contend that Marcos Jr.'s 2022 campaign relied on portraying him as a victim of US intervention in Philippine politics. He appealed to his base--loyalists to his father's political regime--by soliciting pity for some vague notion of his family's suffering in exile and ongoing abjectness as victims of history.

Vestiges of this political rhetoric were evident in the narrative promoted by Marcos Sr.'s supporters that he was "the most brilliant Filipino of the 20th century" who "led a heroic struggle to modernize the country's politics, economy and society, only to be ousted by the small clique of elite families that have dominated the nation since independence". (6) This narrative was reiterated in Marcos Jr.'s 30 June inaugural speech. (7)

Leni Robredo also engaged in the political rebranding of her image. She ran for president as an independent and chose pink as her campaign colour, thereby distancing herself from the dense symbolic weight of the yellow colour and its deep association with the Aquino legacy. Her "people's campaign" made much of the fact that it was launched spontaneously, even haphazardly, (8) and sustained through the efforts of volunteers. Images of grassroots dynamism appealed to the public memory of the 1986 snap elections, which launched Corazon Aquino's political career. For instance, as a testament to the seamless transferability of charismatic images, renowned social realist painter Elmer Borlongan digitally reworked his 2010 oil on canvas painting "kapit bisig", depicting a group of people marching arm-in-arm (an imagery that characterized the martial law years) and gave it a new title, "Laban Lang" ("Continue to fight"), to match the contemporary context of Robredo's presidential campaign.

Though Robredo actively disavowed facile comparisons of herself to fellow political widow Corazon "Cory" Aquino, frequent popular opinion columns that compared "Leni People Power" to "Cory People Power" (9) referenced the two women's extraordinary achievement of leading grassroots popular movements. In reality, the only thing they had in common was who they were up against: Aquino challenged dictator Marcos Sr.; Robredo, his son. (10) Robredo's movement nonetheless piggybacked on the legacy of the first People Power movement, no matter how much Robredo wished to be perceived on her own terms. Furthermore, what was implicitly at stake in Robredo's candidacy was how "Leni People Power" could sustain the...

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