CEBU CITY, Philippines – In most campaign rallies by the administration-allied “Uniteam,” it’s the politicians who usually make headlines with lofty promises, declarations of support, and the occasional incendiary remark, depending on who’s stumping.
But for the “festival rally” in the vote-rich province of Cebu, it was TV show host and YouTube content creator Toni Gonzaga’s declaration – sandwiched between a rendition of the Katy Perry hit “Roar” and the OPM classic “Umagang Kay Ganda” – that set the tone for the last 20 days of the campaign.
“In no time at all, [Bongbong Marcos Jr] will return to his home: Malacañang,” said the singer and Uniteam endorser.
The return to Malacañang – which people like Gonzaga apparently consider the Marcos abode – has been at front and center of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr’s 2022 campaign. The former senator and “absentee” Ilocos Norte governor, after all, grew up in Malacañang, the Presidential palace. He was a boy when his father and namesake, the late dictator, assumed office. Marcos Jr and his family fled the Palace over two decades later when his father was kicked out in 1986 by a popular uprising known the world over as the People Power Revolution.
After nearly 40 years, the younger Marcos is the survey front runner in the 2022 polls, posting a 32 percentage-point advantage over his closest rival Vice President Leni Robredo – the same woman who beat him in the 2016 vice presidential race.
And in the same province that once gave shelter to the president who took over after the dictator was forced out of Malacañang, Marcos Jr graced their grandest rally, before their biggest crowd yet. As incendiary as Gonzaga’s declaration was to critics of the younger Marcos and those who remember the dark days of his father’s regime, the promise of his return to Malacañang seems to have resonated in Cebu and nearby provinces.
According to the March 2022 Pulse Asia preference poll, Marcos Jr is the runaway front runner in Central Visayas, at 61% preference.
“Daog na (We’ve already won),” was the rallying cry in Cebu City on April 18 – both from Uniteam and One Cebu members to the tens of thousands gathered in the venue.
Win margin promise
It’s in Cebu City where the promise of a juggernaut Marcos Jr and Duterte tandem was first publicly teased. The two had met in the city back in October 2021. At that time, Marcos Jr was without a running mate or a Senate slate while Duterte had just filed her candidacy for reelection in Davao City.
At that time, Sara Duterte was leading early preference polls for president even if she had, time and time again, denied she’d be gunning for the post her father currently occupies. It was Yedda Kittilstvedt-Romualdez, wife of Lakas-CMD president Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, who hosted the two during for her birthday party. Romualdez is Marcos Jr’s cousin and is now the co-campaign manager of Sara Duterte.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story mentioned a wrong middle name of Rep. Yedda K. Romualdez. This has been corrected.
Cebu province and its independent cities are crucial to any national candidate, even those who are enjoying a considerable lead in opinion polls. It’s home to over 3.2 million registered voters in 2022 and, assuming trends continue, has voter turn out rate that’s higher than the national average. But there’s also a belief – or a fact, depending on whom you speak to – that where Cebuanos go, the country follows.
The past three presidents – Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the late Benigno Aquino III, and President Rodrigo Duterte – all won big in Cebu province. Arroyo and Duterte were both backed by Gwen Garcia, the incumbent governor and now head of One Cebu.
“Kung mutingog ang Sugbo, ang nasod musunod nato (When Cebu speaks up, the country follows),” said the head of the Garcia political dynasty.
Speaking to reporters after the April 18 rally, Garcia declined to give specifics when asked how many votes they’d deliver to the Uniteam tandem. Instead, she vowed a win margin higher than that of Arroyo’s or Duterte’s. The two presidents won by more than 1 million votes in Cebu province.
The story was different in the vice presidential race, at least in 2016. The One Cebu-backed Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte’s running-mate, was only second in the province. It was Vice President Leni Robredo, backed by Liberal Party allies and provincial incumbents, who won in Cebu province, although she did lose in Cebu City.
“I daresay that – I don’t want to give numbers but I believe that we can even deliver a much higher margin this time. I’m not talking about the votes, I’m talking about the margin over his closest [rival] and it also helps a lot [that Marcos Jr] is way over ahead of whoever is number 2,” added Garcia in the same chance interview.
Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama also emphasized Marcos Jr and Duterte’s popularity in the city, speaking to Rappler in a sit down interview. Rama, who heads the regional party Partido Barug, already announced his support for the Marcos Jr and Duterte tandem even before the One Cebu-Uniteam alliance was inked.
The phrase “One Cebu Island” sounds like a mere catchphrase to outsiders but for those who’ve followed Cebu politics closely, it’s an interesting development. In previous elections, the incumbents of Cebu City and Cebu province supported different bets. In governance, too, the city and the province generally steered clear of each other – not so much because of animosity but because of independence.
Rama, speaking to Rappler, said the COVID-19 pandemic has taught local leaders that consolidation and coordination – especially when it comes to local policies – only makes sense, especially in Cebu where major cities, including the independent cities of Cebu, Lapu-Lapu, and Mandaue are close to each other and other neighboring local government units.
The consolidation is happening on the electoral front as well. “This time, you see it’s Cebu province and Cebu island because we have the cities of Cebu, Lapu-Lapu, Mandaue – the tri-cities. Lapu-Lapu and Cebu do not vote for provincial officials, Mandaue does. Now the 3 cities have One Cebu Island. We signed a covenant. It’s not just One Cebu, but One Cebu Island,” said Garcia.
Garcia’s One Cebu is also flexing its muscles hard in 2022. According to Garcia, it has full slates in all the towns and cities of the province. In most cases, she said, it’s the incumbents who are members of or allies with One Cebu.
The Garcia clan’s links to the Uniteam tandem goes beyond their formal alliance. Garcia’s daughter, Liloan Mayor Christina Garcia-Frasco, is spokesperson for Duterte and among the first in the province to publicly push for the Marcos Jr and Duterte tandem. She has also recently joined Lakas-CMD, the party Duterte co-chairs.
Garcia-Frasco’s husband, Duke Frasco, is the incumbent representative of Cebu’s 5th district and figured prominently in the tandem’s not-so-discreet first meeting in the weeks after the filing of certificates of candidacies.
But its oneness isn’t absolute.
Governor Garcia’s brother PJ, who represents the province’s 3rd district, stepped down as secretary-general of One Cebu following its Uniteam alliance. Representative Garcia had earlier endorsed Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. The 5th district is also where the Garcias are battling it out against another big political clan: the Duranos. Its head, Ace Durano, is challenging Governor Garcia for the provincial seat.
The 3rd and 5th districts combined are home to over 689,000 votes. – Ryan Macasero/Rappler.com
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