VALENZUELA CITY, Philippines – John Benvir Serag knocked on doors in the working-class neighborhood, wearing his pink “Youth Vote for Leni” T-shirt and holding a stack of flyers. For the past month he has spent almost every day trying to explain to strangers why Leni Robredo is the best person to run the Philippines.
“What do you look for in a president?” Mr. Serag asked an elderly woman in the run-up to the presidential election in May.
“Of course, someone who doesn’t steal,” she replied.
“Right! Leni has no trace of corruption,” said Mr. Serag. “Besides, she is not a thief.”
Anyone who made eye contact with 26-year-old Mr. Serag in this neighborhood was an opening. Questions about her proposal for a clean government? Need more information about her plans for farmers and businesses?
In these elections, many have spoken out in full for Ms Robredo, the country’s vice president, an outspoken critic of Mr Duterte and a frequent target of his insults. They face big opportunities, with Ms. Robredo is a distant second behind the frontrunner, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s only son and namesake.
They are also battling a wave of disinformation that has transformed the Marcos dictatorship into what supporters of the younger Marcos call a “golden age.” Some of their peers are influenced by YouTube videos depicting Mr. Marcos as a cool parent, while some among an older generation are nostalgic for the rule of strongmen.
Presidential elections in the Philippines have long been a battle for the hearts of young Filipinos. This time, at least half of the record 65 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30.
But they were rarely characterized by this level of passion and intensity. By February 25, according to Barry Gutierrez, her spokesperson, two million volunteers had signed up for Ms. Robredo’s campaign. Many of them are first-time voters or too young to vote. Its gatherings have drawn tens of thousands of people.
“It’s like my mom is a rock star every time she goes around, and this is something very surprising for us,” said Tricia Robredo, one of Ms. Robredo’s daughters. “Especially because in the past six years we have abandoned our experience where my mother has been very vilified online.”
Dozens of groups have sprung up, combining their shared interests in K-pop and Taylor Swift with getting the vote for Ms. Robredo. The “Swifties4Leni” wear T-shirts with the hashtag #OnlyTheYoung, referencing Ms. Swift’s song about empowering youth against the “big bad man and his big bad clan”.
Many young followers of Mrs. Robredo are united in their desire to prevent another Marcos from becoming president. Aside from the human rights violations committed during his father’s 20-year reign, Mr. Marcos – known by his nickname Bongbong – has been convicted of tax fraud, refused to pay his family’s estate taxes and misrepresented his education at Oxford University.
Ms. Robredo, a lawyer and economist, narrowly defeated Mr. Marcos in 2016 to win the vice presidency, which is individually elected from the presidency. She has vowed to stop the extrajudicial killings in the drug war. During the pandemic, she sent medical equipment to patients and sent supplies to frontliners. She has helped marginalized communities and is usually one of the first top officials to visit disaster-stricken sites.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Ms. Robredo’s young volunteers is the wave of disinformation that has glorified the Marcos era and vilified Ms. Robredo as a communist. Split videos have also portrayed her as stuttering and unintelligent.
Tsek.ph, an independent fact-checking project in the Philippines, found that Mr. Marcos has benefited the most from disinformation this year, while Ms. Robredo has been the worst victim to date. The group said that of the more than 200 election-related posts it analyzed, 94 percent focused on Ms. Robredo; only 10 percent went behind Mr. Marcos on.
“It’s a little late for us to fight that misinformation,” said Mr. Serag, a high school teacher who uses VJ. “But we’re still doing it, even if it’s a little too late. That prompted me to be active.”
On a recent Thursday, Mr Serag led a team of 20 other volunteers near General T. de Leon, where posters of Mr. Marcos and his running mate, Sara Duterte, the daughter of the president, were plastered in front of many homes.
A week earlier, several of Mr. Marcos’s supporters nearby had dumped a bucket of water on them.
“What do you look for in a president?” Mr. Serag asked a middle-aged woman who runs a stall.
“Someone who can help us find a job,” the woman replied.
“Leni has set aside a budget of 100 million for small and medium-sized enterprises and when it comes to employment -” started Mr Serag, before being cut off.
“Isn’t Leni a ‘yellow one’?” the woman asked, referring to the “yellow” Liberal Party. The Aquino family party, which spawned two former presidents, is seen by some as an elite group that has failed to improve the lives of ordinary Filipinos.
“No, she’s independent,” Mr Serag replied. He insisted, “Even if we get rid of the political colors, yellow or whatever, let’s think about what she really did. She really helped a lot of communities.”
The votes of the young people remain divided between Ms Robredo and Mr Marcos. Many young people remain big fans of Mr. Marcos – a survey has shown that seven out of ten Filipinos aged 18 to 24 want him to be president. The country’s textbooks do little to address the atrocities of the Marcos era. Mr Marcos’ young supporters say they love watching his YouTube videos, what often his family in game show segments.
A volunteer from the team of Mr. Serag, Jay Alquizar, 22, had a speaker who played a rap and pop jingle that featured the performance of Ms. Robredo praised whom he led through the streets. A group of teenage boys cycled past him. Some called out Mr. Marcos’ initials: “BBM, BBM!”
Mr. Alquizar spoke into his microphone. “We’re not here for a fight, we just want to inspire you,” he said. “That’s what we see as young people. You should see that too. Because the future isn’t just for you. It’s for the next generation.”
Mr Alquizar said he was inspired in part by his grandfather, a former police officer, who was tortured during the Marcos regime after speaking out against human rights abuses. “The word ‘sorry’ from the Marcos family,” he said in an interview. “We just want to hear from them.”
In previous elections, young people in the Philippines were particularly concerned about bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs. They were often frustrated by the political dynasties that dominated the establishment, but felt they could do little about it. Youth turnout in the 2016 election was about 30 percent, compared to 82 percent for the general population.
Maria Tinao, 16, a high school girl in the city of Caloocan, said she was always disillusioned with politics because she believed that officials had joined the government to enrich themselves. A self-proclaimed ‘pageant fanatic’, she was more focused on winning beauty pageants and listening to K-pop than on her country’s leaders.
In 2017, Kian Loyd delos Santos was shot twice in the head.
His death shocked Ms. Tinao. He was 17. The police officers who shot him were found guilty of his murder.
In January, Ms. Tinao saw an interview with Ms. Robredo and was impressed. She began researching the vice president’s stance on the drug war. Although she was too young to vote, she wanted to work on convincing people who could.
“We want a change, a real change for this country,” Ms Tinao said.
For the next few months, Ms. Tinao was relentless in discussing Ms. Robredo’s policies with her mother.
“I was annoyed at first,” said Monica Tinao, 43, a volunteer church worker, who considered voting for Isko Moreno, the mayor of Manila.
But she remained curious about Mrs. Robredo’s profession. In March, she decided to attend a meeting for the candidate. She saw the young volunteers hand out free food and water. Her daughter stood in front of the podium.
That evening, the elderly Mrs. Tinao, who lives in a neighborhood with Marcos supporters, found her daughter’s banner promoting Mrs. Robredo and hung it on her front door.
Jason Gutierrez and Camille Elemia reporting contributed.