The Philippines faces a polarised election that could lead to the return of the Marcos family to government. Evangelicals have been very vocal in their political stance.
The son of a dictator, the former national police chief and a retired boxer are some of the candidates for the presidency of the Philippines in the elections on Monday 9 May.
The Southeast Asian island nation faces a controversial and polarised election that could see the return of the Marcos family to power.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos is the favourite candidate, with up to 56% support according to the latest polls in April. He is the son of Ferdinand Marcos (father), the dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, and from 1972 onwards ruled under a Martial Law in which 3,257 people were extrajudicially killed and 35,000 tortured, according to Amnesty International.
The only one who seems to offer a possible alternative is the incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo, who could get between 25% and 30% of the support and who has the backing of the Catholic bishops, who are very influential in the Philippines. Other candidates, such as Isko Moreno and retired boxer Manny Pacquiao, are expected to get the support of less than 10% of the electorate.
“This is a very defining election for us. It's been 36 years since the the Filipino people ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Senior, and now we see that the front runner of the elections is actually his son. So it's very relevant as to how history is going to be rewritten and revised”, Matthew Velásquez, community transformation officer for Conservative Baptist Association of Philippines and former executive assistant to the bishop of Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches tells Spanish news website Protestante Digital.
Furthermore, “many of the efforts that our people have fought for towards democracy might be in danger of being cancelled or destroyed altogether. And at the same time, it's relevant because our unity as a people is being tested”.
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) agrees that “this election is very significant and relevant”, because “it signals whether we turn for the better, democratically, or we continue this present trend of tyranny and authoritarianism. It will show whether we choose to move forward or we go back to the grim past in a country led by the former dictator’s son and the Marcos family”.
“Bongbong” Marcos teams up for the presidency in the Philippines with Sara Duterte, the daughter of former president Rodrigo Duterte, known for his controversial fight against drugs, which between 2016 and 2017 alone had already left more than 12,000 dead in the islands, according to Human Rights Watch, and for his controversial comments, stating that “God is stupid” and describing the Philippine Catholic bishops as “bastards who are good for nothing”, among others.
The constitution says that the Philippines holds elections every six years, and a candidate can only serve one term as president, without the option of being re-elected.
“Most of us are afraid that we might be entering into another dictatorship, and we want to keep our democracy”, points out Velásquez.
According to the evangelical leader, the government of Duterte “has been a circus. He has always said what is on his mind, and unfortunately, what he says does not always agree with what he said before or with what he will say tomorrow”.
“Duterte has been the most headstrong leader that we have had, and that's because of his strong statements against corruption and drugs, and also because of his reputation being Mayor in Davos City more than two decades. But curiously,his political stance has also opened the possibility of people who have been charged with plunder and serious cases against the citizens of the Philippines to run again”, adds Velásquez.
He underlines that “if you look at the party where his daughter is running for Vice President, and the personalities there, you would see that they have had corruption cases in the past where they have been convicted and proven to have stolen from the country”.
The election campaign has shown how divided Philippine society is. “The majority of Filipinos are driven by personality rather than by platforms, credentials or what they have achieved in the past as a political figure. But there are a considerable number of Filipinos who are sensitive to the fact that you have to choose a leader who has integrity, with credentials and experience, and who knows the heart of the masses”, says Velásquez.
The NCCP also points out that “there is polarization. We moved away from a two-party system to a multi-party system when there was an experiment to put up a parliamentary system during Marcos’ time. This, for several times, meant we had a President who did not have a majority vote, and there is no run-off election. But it is clear that only one of the two parties will emerge victorious”.
The elections have also created a complex information scenario, to the extent that, as Velasquez notes, “Filipinos are having a hard time identifying what is true and what is not”.
“Fake news and disinformation play a big role in how many Filipinos are confused and misinformed. And the Church isn't far from that. I am sad to say that even in evangelical churches and Christians there is confusion. It's a well known fact that there have been disinformation campaigns. And so far, we can see that it has worked to confuse people, even within the Church”, the Baptist leader says.
A recurrent issue in this election campaign is the perspective and historical revisionism around the Marcos family.
According to Velasquez, “in the Church, we see our doctrine and theology being used to create a misunderstanding between Christians. We know that historically the Marcus families have stolen billions of pesos and millions of dollars from the Philippines. But now, the country and many Christians are emphasising forgiveness and grace”.
“They are using biblical passages to perhaps justify their support and vote for the Marcos candidate. But, on the other side, there are also many Christian seeking justice for what the Marcos have done in the past”, he adds.
There are two sides: “One side saying, let's forgive him, he is not his father and he should not be accountable for what his father has done. And the other side saying that before extending forgiveness and granting him the trust that he seeks, he must admit and at least apologise or acknowledge the injustices that his family has committed in the past”.
“Maybe those are the two dominant voices in the discussion right now. If anybody's in the middle of that, their voice is not really heard”.
The NCCP stresses that “many Christians and churches frame this election as a battle for light and truth, in the midst of a barrage of fake news, disinformation, propaganda, to distort and revise history, especially the history of the Philippines during Martial Law and during the Marcos dictatorship”.
The Catholic bishops, very influential in a country of 110 million people where around 80% identify as Catholics, have spoken out in favour of Robredo's candidacy and particularly strongly against that of Marcos and Duterte, calling on the population to avoid "the blatant and subtle distortion” which, they believe, this tandem is promoting.
The President of the bishops, Pablo Virgilio David, spoke in allegorical references, stating that no one can remain “neutral" like Pilate, and said that “we have no other enemy than the Prince of Lies, Satan".
The social and health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy were among the key issues in the election campaign.
In the Philippines, 61% of the population has received the full vaccination pattern, seven points below the overall average for Asia (68%), according to 'Our World in Data'. Furthermore, the country, which bases much of its economy on tourism, is still recovering from a drop of more than 13% in annual GDP growth in 2020.
Another key point of discussion has been foreign relations, mainly influenced by the tension between the United States and China.
“Our relations with the US, China, Russia and the UN countries have changed. Politically, the challenge might be to choose with whom we are going to build closer relations in the next six years, because we have seen Duterte distance himself from the US significantly in the last mandate”, explains Velasquez.
He believes that "the next president, whoever it might be, will either continue that trend or bring us back to our position, maybe not as favourable as before, but at least to a more neutral stance with the United Nations, especially if there is a pending investigation on [Duterte's] war on drugs".
“Political dynasties in the Philippines are very strong and also tied with other political dynasties. Whoever becomes president will have to deal with these scenarios internationally, and then he will have to be accountable locally. There are many missing and mismanaged funds. People really want a change. We have seen the change that a dictatorship or a strong authority could bring, but I think now people are more willing than ever to participate in the government”, underlines Velasquez.
After the repeated tensions in recent years over manoeuvres and movements along the coastline that separates the Philippines from China, the NCCP is concerned about “the independent foreign policy direction we are to take”. They also believe that it will be necessary to review some of the laws passed during Duterte's term, which “threaten the Bill of Rights”.
“It's surprising to see how many Christians have been very vocal in their political stance and what they also believe about government from the Bible. That has not been seen before. Now, because of the importance of these elections, we are seeing more and more Christians being vocal. They are more willing to get involved and go out on the streets and go house to house to support their candidate or to campaign", says Velasquez.
Asked for prayer requests for Filipino evangelicals, the Baptist leader calls on Christians worldwide to pray for “unity in the bond of peace”.
“We are united in doctrine, but we have not had many opportunities to formally dialogue with each other. And I think this is another challenge for the evangelical leadership in the Philippines, how to respond to such a moment as this".
Velasquez also asks to pray “that God will clearly guide us on how we can participate as a more biblical community in our local government”.
“That doesn't necessarily mean that we take political positions, but to participate in the community as Jesus did when he was here on earth, and to do so without being seen to have ulterior motives," he adds.
The Baptist leader urges Christians to pray “that the message of the church in the Philippines will still be clear”. “There are many Christian sects here in the Philippines, other groups that claim to believe in Christ, but actually have wrong teachings about Jesus”.
“If we evangelicals go out to participate in society, pray that we will not only do good, but also preach the good news of Jesus and that, by God's grace and mercy, our participation and our faithfulness in preaching will result in people also surrendering their lives to the Lord”, concludes Velasquez.
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