Manila, Philippines – Armed with a stack of flyers, stickers and some pink wristbands, Hannah Barrantes, a corporate lawyer by day, hops from bus to bus in Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare to make a pitch to its passengers.
“I’m like those missionaries who board buses to preach to passengers while they’re stuck in traffic,” Barrantes told Al Jazeera. “Only that I don’t preach the gospel, I spread the word about how we can improve as a nation through good governance that Vice President Leni Robredo promises.”
Barrantes is just one of millions of mostly young people who have become a part of a so-called “pink movement” moving Heaven and Earth to elect Vice President Leni Robredo as president and thwart the political resurgence of the Marcos family.
The leader of the opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte, Robredo is fighting an uphill battle against Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his beauty queen wife Imelda, in the Philippines’ most consequential elections in recent history.
Robredo, a human rights lawyer, social activist and mother of three daughters, went into politics after her husband – then a government minister – was killed in a plane crash. The 57-year-old won a congressional seat in 2013, overwhelmingly defeating a member of the political dynasty in her hometown, and has since continued her husband’s brand of participative and progressive politics.
Opinion polls suggest Marcos Jr is likely to emerge the winner in the May 9 poll in what analysts say would be a huge setback for democracy, at a time when many are struggling from the economic fallout brought on by Duterte’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Robredo is banking on her millions of passionate volunteers to pip Marcos at the post, as she did in 2016 when the two were running for vice president.
They have organised mammoth rallies across the nation and conducted what she calls a “people to people” campaign, including going house to house, organising food programmes and health clinics as well as legal counselling.
Cleve Arguelles, an academic at De La Salle University, says the kind of grassroots movement for Robredo offers a powerful alternative to the traditional ways of doing politics in the Philippines, where people are usually paid to attend rallies rather than the other way around.
“They are standing up against an alliance of some of the most insidious and powerful political families in the country, how they usually run elections, and the kind of politics they represent,” Arguelles told Al Jazeera.
“This movement is inspiring Filipinos to rediscover that the power of the people can be stronger than the election machines of political elites and dynasties and even the people in power.”
‘Better life for all’
On a recent Sunday, Barrantes, 28, and a group of her former schoolmates trooped to a public market in Pasig City, one of the cities that form the Manila metropolis, to campaign for Robredo and her running mate Senator Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan, who is running separately as vice president.
Carrying a loudspeaker blasting out Robredo’s campaign jingles – also written by volunteers – the group walked through the market, targeting tricycle and jeepney drivers and their passengers.
Barrantes approached a driver proudly displaying Marcos Jr’s posters on his tricycle and smiling, made a pitch for Robredo. He said he had already made up his mind to vote for Marcos Jr, whose campaign message is unity but is often criticised for lacking substance. By the end of the conversation, the driver was still bent on voting for Marcos Jr, but he accepted the flyers and face masks from Barrantes.
But the team was not always unlucky. They were able to convince some who were undecided or those who were leaning towards Robredo but still wavering.
Esperanza Bunda, 51, is a rare female tricycle driver. After speaking to the campaigners, she decided her vote would be going to Robredo.
“She’s a woman. I’m also a woman. If she makes it, we women will be proud,” Bunda told Al Jazeera when asked why she had decided to back Robredo.
Bunda said she admired the way Robredo had raised her children alone and wished that her children would be as successful as Robredo’s after seeing an advertisement featuring the daughters of the vice president.
To cement her support for Robredo, she allowed Barrantes’ team to display Robredo’s posters and stickers on her tricycle. “Sa gobyernong tapat, angat buhay lahat,” the stickers read, which means better life for all under good governance.
Leni Robredo declared her presidential bid late into the game, but her supporters were already organising themselves for the campaign.
There are “Lawyers for Leni”, “Doctors for Leni” and even “Kpop stans for Leni”, her signature pink has made its mark across the Philippines and social media.
Without the political machinery she enjoyed in 2016, when she had the backing of the incumbent Benigno Aquino, Robredo has organised from the ground up.
But it seems even she has been surprised at the response.
“I think I just became the symbol,” she told Filipino Nobel laureate and journalist Maria Ressa in an interview last month. “It’s like the time was right. The people are now ready. It’s like they were full of bottled-up emotions.”
Her campaign has been buoyed by unprecedented endorsements from Catholic priests and nuns – in a country where 80 percent of the population is Catholic – former diplomats who were previously apolitical, schools and universities, farmers and fishing communities, and even the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
In a showbiz-crazed society, A-list Filipino celebrities who rake in millions in advertising and endorsement revenue have also given their support, joining door-knocking campaigns or entertaining the crowds at her rallies for free.
Many of her supporters say they want a leader who will restore democracy, good governance and decency after six years of democratic backsliding under Duterte.
“This has become a movement because it’s not just about electing a particular person, but electing the governance that we all want to happen in the Philippines,” said Barrantes.
“We’re fighting against the current status quo of the Philippines, which is rampant corruption, red tape, [patronage politics] and it’s particularly the brand of Marcos politics that we’re trying to resist,” she added.
Forced from office and into exile in the “People Power” uprising of 1986, the Marcoses were reviled for the human rights abuses and corruption that marked the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Imelda, meanwhile, was a byword for excess, infamous for her collection of shoes.
Despite that tainted past, Marcos Jr, who was a senator between 2010 and 2016, has been campaigning on a platform of “unity”. Critics attribute his popularity to decades-long whitewashing campaigns designed to make his controversial family more appealing to Filipinos.
Big or small, everyone in Robredo’s movement has an ambag, the Filipino word for contribution to the cause.
Nica del Rosario, a composer and singer, volunteered to produce a campaign jingle even before Robredo announced her bid in October 2021. Within four days, she and her team had come up with “Kay Leni Tayo” which means “We are for Leni”.
Since the song was adopted by the campaign, it has been translated into various Philippine languages and performed across the country.
“I’ve seen how Vice President Leni worked, who she is and what she can do. She’s been an inspiration to me since 2016 so I really channelled that into showing people who she really is through the song,” Del Rosario told Al Jazeera.
Del Rosario has also produced another song titled “Rosas” or rose in English, which was written from the perspective of Robredo hoping for a better future for Filipinos. That too has become a hit at the vice president’s rallies.
“It still makes me very overwhelmed, very emotional. At this point, I feel that the song belongs to the people, already. I want them to feel that this song is for all of us,” Del Rosario told Al Jazeera.
Robredo and Pangilanan’s rallies are the most spirited political gatherings to have been seen in the Philippines in recent times.
The biggest was on April 26 – Robredo’s birthday – when at least 400,000 people stood for more than 12 hours under Manila’s scorching sun to wait patiently for Robredo to speak.
Several of the Philippines’ most prominent celebrities joined the festivities, while supporters brought food and snacks, much of it pink, and others volunteered as medics and marshals.
The event cost some 2.5 million pesos ($50,000) with funding from a donation drive and pledges from sponsors.
“We went to the Pasig rally and we were inspired by a lot of volunteers who brought food for everyone. We were starving that day, but we were happy that we got full without spending money, so we thought, let’s pay it forward,” Maridel Andaya, who distributed pink bread with her friends, said.
The rallies, with calls for good governance, justice for victims of extrajudicial killings, and the release of Senator Leila de Lima, who has been imprisoned for five years on drug charges she denies, echo the mass protests of recent years by young people in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar.
While the so-called Milk Tea Alliance – a loose network of young activists in East and Southeast Asia – is fighting for democracy and human rights by demanding regime change, Filipino youth are trying to nip a feared dictatorial rule in the bud by blocking Marcos Jr.
But while Robredo may be winning in terms of the passion and dedication of her supporters, the reality is that Marcos Jr will be tough to beat.
An opinion poll released this week showed that Filipinos’ preference for Marcos Jr remains at 56 points compared with 23 points for Robredo.
But in the race for the vice presidency in 2016, Robredo also came from behind to win.
“The path to victory for Leni Robredo is narrow. But she showed us before, and even in this current race, that she can tread the thinnest of paths,” Arguelles said.
As the clock counts down to May 9, the pink campaign will be doing all they can to ensure their candidate comes out on top.
“This is our generation’s fight,” Barrantes said. “It’s better to risk and lose in the end than not risk and you will not forget it for the rest of your life.”