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Filipinos in Canada weigh in on the presidential election from afar, with money and votes

Connie Vacalares knows how polarizing and intense the Philippine election campaign has become. She hears about the divisions all day from her Filipino customers in her Asian food grocery, Manila BBQ SuperMart, in New Westminster, B.C.. 

“Families, friends, they are divided,” she said. 

They’re divided because the front runner in the race, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is the son of the notorious dictator whose 20-year tyranny ended in an uprising in the 1980s. 

Some people furiously support Marcos Jr., despite his family history, while others despise him.

Some of Vacalares’s customers can’t actually cast a vote — they gave up that right when they became Canadian citizens. But they come to her store to offer another kind of currency in the election: money.

More specifically, remittance. It’s how the diaspora sends money home, via transfer in the SuperMart, and a common way for ineligible Filipino voters to engage in elections through their family and friends.

Whether with money or votes, Filipinos in Canada have been emboldened to engage more in this contentious election, despite the distance, and rallies for candidates in Winnipeg and Calgary have attracted hundreds of supporters. 

Influencing family

Because of the rules around citizenship in the Philippines, when a Filipino becomes a citizen of another country they lose their civil and political rights in the Philippines, which include the right to vote. A person can get their citizenship back eventually by filling out an application and paying a fee, but remittance can be a faster form of political influence.

filipinos in canada weigh in on the presidential election from afar with money and votes
Susana Lorenzo says she’s concerned about the younger generation in the Philippines and has tried to influence her family to vote for Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., who she says is ‘really qualified.’ (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Each year billions of dollars is sent into the Philippines from overseas workers around the world, according to the Philippines Bureau of Immigration. 

The Manila BBQ SuperMart processes remittance payments every day of the week.  Vacalares says she speaks to people daily about the purpose of their payment and politics comes up a lot lately. 

“The voice of somebody who is here in Canada is very strong,” she said. “They get to influence their family [because] they are the one giving them their allowances.”  

The other way to take part in the election is of course by voting.

This election, more than 1.6 million voters from around the world will cast a ballot, according to the country’s Commission on Elections. That includes 90,000 registered voters from across Canada, many of which are concentrated in four Canadian provinces — Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba, according to the 2016 Census profile on ethnic origin.

Dictator’s son in the lead

The May 9 election will decide a new leader for the Philippines, with President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term coming to an end. 

There are many candidates running for president, including champion boxer Manny Pacquiao, but most voters are paying attention to two front-runners: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Leni Robredo. 

filipinos in canada weigh in on the presidential election from afar with money and votes 1
Presidential hopeful, former senator Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., center, the son of the late dictator, greets the crowd during a campaign rally in Quezon City, Philippines on April 13. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., also known as Bongbong Marcos or BBM, is leading the opinion polls. He’s the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who was overthrown in 1986. 

He’s also the preferred candidate for Susana Lorenzo in New Westminster, who says she’s trying her best to influence her family to vote for him and his party.

Lorenzo chants “BBM, BBM” while sending remittance to family at the Manilla BBQ SuperMart.

Lorenzo can’t vote because she’s a Canadian citizen,but says she tries to look out for her family back home by sending money and political advice. 

She says she’s worried about the younger generation in the Philippines and what their futures will look like as the country battles high inflation. 

“We want the economy to keep going, because people right now are suffering, because of the pandemic.” 

Election underdog

The other front-runner is current Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo. 

Robredo is a human rights lawyer with an underdog grassroots-style campaign, which for months has been known for its enthusiastic use of the colour pink. 

filipinos in canada weigh in on the presidential election from afar with money and votes 2
Vice-President Leni Robredo, who is also celebrating her 57th birthday, talks to the crowd during her presidential campaign rally in Pasay City, Philippines, on April 23. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Robredo also has strong affiliation with the movement that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship, which explains why there’s so much friction between the two candidates and their supporters. 

For Robredo supporter, Amado Mercado, this election is personal.

The Canadian-Filipino based in B.C. vows never to return to the Philippines if Marcos Jr. wins, because of the campaign’s ties to his father’s dictatorship and its coziness with President Duterte, whose daughter is Marcos Jr.’s running mate. 

The legacy of the brutal regime and corruption of the Marcos years and Duterte’s human rights violations from his bloody crusade against alleged drug dealers frame this election as a battle of “good versus evil,” Mercado told CBC. 

filipinos in canada weigh in on the presidential election from afar with money and votes 3
Amado Mercado has lived in Canada for 33 years and is a registered overseas voter. He calls the Philippines election a ‘generational election’ and believes the outcome will significantly change the course of the country’s future. (GP Mendoza/CBC)

“This will spell the doom of the Philippines,” he said. “I’d be so ashamed, all the world will see how the Filipinos accepted and voted for a thief.” 

Youth mobilizing

For some younger Canadian-Filipinos, misinformation is also a significant issue in the election. 

Aubrey Clarito from Richmond B.C. is a first-time voter and says she’s seeing a lot of “fake news” about candidates online. She believes younger Filipinos, with more exposure to technology and social media, are better equipped at filtering out misinformation. 

There’s been a deluge of it in the final weeks of the campaign with much of it favouring Ferdinand Marcos Jr., according to local media. 

Clarito, a Robredo supporter, has been closely following the campaign and says she’s buoyed by the mobilization of the country’s young people in the last few weeks.

She believes younger voters will be less susceptible what election analysts call “authoritarian nostalgia” or claims about a Philippines “golden age” during the years Marcos Sr. was in power, when they vote.  

The polls open in the Philippines on May 9 and vote counting will begin as soon as the ballots close.

A winner could be apparent within hours.

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