Distance Makes the Vote Grow Farther: The Filipino Migrant Vote in the 2022 Elections

by: Laurence Go

The recently concluded Philippine elections saw the landslide win of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., whose victory is historical for two reasons. First, while parts of the world have voted to reject candidates linked to former dictators and far right parties (e.g. Chile 2021, Peru 2021, France 2022), the Filipino people have thrown their support towards the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator. Second, this is the first election in more than 30 years that the winning presidential candidate has garnered a majority of the votes.[1] This victory is also thanks to the millions of Filipino migrants worldwide. In this blog post, I present evidence of the Filipino migrants’ voting behaviors since their enfranchisement and attempt to make sense of the current results using available data and existing literature.[2]

The Filipino Migrant

In 2019, the Philippines was the ninth highest migrant-sending country and the fourth highest remittance-sending country in the world. Historically, this wave of migration was attributed to the labor policy of former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., which encouraged emigration to stimulate the economy in the 1970s. Although planned to be a temporary measure to respond to rising unemployment, remittances became a backbone of the Philippine economy, making it heavily dependent on emigration as an institutionalized labor policy. 

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, as of 2020, there are 1.77 million overseas Filipino workers, most of whom reside in the Middle East (57.5%) and East Asia (17.7%), with Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong as the top two destinations.[3] Filipino migrants are mostly engaged in low-skilled work: 46.7% in elementary occupations, 14.4% in service and sales, and 11.5% in plant and machine operations.[4]

These overseas Filipino workers comprise a large proportion of the Filipino voters abroad, which also include migrants who permanently reside in their host countries and are already dual citizens. Extraterritorial voting was first implemented in the 2004 elections and has since seen ever larger figures for voter registration and turnout. While the numbers have grown tremendously, the COVID-19 pandemic caused migrants to go home in droves, leading to a reduction in the number of registered overseas voters for the 2022 elections at 1.7 million, down from 1.82 million in 2019. Data from the Commission on Elections shows that more than 40% of registered overseas voters come from the Middle East, and around 23% reside in East and Southeast Asia. 

Enfranchising Filipino Migrants

In 2003, the Philippine government enfranchised Filipino migrants to vote in national elections from abroad. Since 2004, overseas Filipinos have participated in the triennial exercise, although not without difficulties. Registration only needs to be done once unless a migrant changes his/her country of residence or in cases when one has not voted in at least two elections. Although the process itself is simple, having to go to embassies and consulates can prove too costly to many Filipino migrants who work and live far away from city centers. The same is true when it comes to voting. Despite a special 30-day window for voting, migrants fail to turn out because, in many cases, this requires asking for permission from their employers and spending day wages to travel to voting precincts.[5]

2022 Philippine Elections: A Historical Juncture

The 2022 elections in the Philippines looked like a case of history repeating itself: the two main presidential contenders are the former dictator’s son Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the incumbent vice president Leni Robredo, both of whom ran for vice president in 2016. Interestingly, their contrast, as reported by the media, cannot be more stark: Marcos Jr. and his family have unpaid estate taxes of $3.9 billion, and has lied about his educational background, while Robredo has no corruption cases to her name (a rare occurrence in top government posts) and her programs have been awarded for their best practices and efficiency. Despite this, however, history did not repeat itself: this time, Marcos Jr. won convincingly.[6]

How Did the Filipino Migrants Vote?

According to the latest available data, around 620,000 overseas voters cast their votes, resulting in a 36.5% turnout rate, which is significantly higher than the two previous presidential elections.[7] While domestic voters gave Marcos Jr. 58.6% of the vote, overseas voters gave him a much greater majority – an unprecedented 72.7% of the vote. Of the countries and voting centres with available data, Marcos Jr. won all but one of those, with the main opposition candidate Robredo winning only one (Vatican City). 

How does this compare with migrants’ historical voting behavior? Looking at the data, Filipino migrant voting behavior seems to be fairly consistent across space and time. In the 2016 elections, then presidential candidate Duterte received 38.7% of the domestic vote and 72.0% of the diaspora vote. Duterte went on to win 58 of 59 countries, with the second placer Roxas getting only one (Vatican City). In the 2010 and 2004 elections, the winning candidates also received higher vote shares from the diaspora than the domestic voters: Aquino got 42.0% domestically and 55.7% overseas, while Macapagal-Arroyo got 40.0% and 44.4% respectively. While the magnitudes vary, the trend of the diaspora providing stronger support towards the winning candidate is consistent. If any, the difference lies in the type of candidate that migrants support: sometimes they vote to maintain the status quo (in the case of Macapagal-Arroyo, who was the incumbent, and now Marcos Jr., who was seen as the “continuity” candidate to Duterte’s populism) and sometimes they vote for change (in the case of Aquino, who ran under a platform of eliminating corruption, of which Macapagal-Arroyo was accused; and in turn with authoritarian-leaning Duterte, who was the opposition candidate to Aquino’s liberal governance).  

What Explains the Diaspora Vote? 

At an aggregate level, it seems that migrants tend to vote in high proportions for the same candidate. However, breaking the results down by country of residence shows a more interesting picture. Using the Polity score to proxy for democracy status, Figure 1 shows that migrants from less democratic countries, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, are more likely to support Marcos Jr. (and also Duterte back in 2016), as evident in the higher vote shares.[8]

Figure 1: Democracy Level and Vote for Authoritarianism

This suggests the potential link between migration to democratic countries and support for more liberal candidates. However, without further data, it is hard to disentangle two distinct but plausible hypotheses: (1) the migrant’s environment shapes his/her voting behavior (i.e. political socialization), and (2) the host environment attracts a particular profile of migrants (i.e. migrant selection). On the one hand, it is possible that moving to democratic countries exposes migrants to more democratic ideals and hence support candidates who engender such principles. On the other hand, it could be the case that certain countries attract specific types of migrants largely due to immigration policies and job opportunities. In the case of the Philippines, countries in the Middle East and Asia (particularly Hong Kong) have greater demand for low-skilled workers (e.g. domestic work). While the two mechanisms are likely at play in the Philippine case, the findings above might also reflect the broader trend towards authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, as evidenced by the migrant support for Aquino in 2010 and for Duterte and Marcos Jr. in 2016 and 2022, respectively.[9]

However, an important caveat needs to be made about the analysis above. The Philippines has a weak political party system characterized by unstable party alignments (Hicken, 2009). Apart from parties having no significant ideological or political differences, politics has been candidate-based and personality-driven instead of party-driven (Manacsa and Tan, 2005). Especially for presidential elections, candidates can be classified into two: the administration candidate, who runs a campaign to continue the projects of the current government, and the opposition candidate, who goes against the incumbent and his/her administration. For example, the ruling party, PDP-Laban, formed in 1982 against the dictatorship, just threw their support for Marcos Jr. in the recently held elections. This presents a challenge in terms of labeling parties based on their platforms/manifestos, and in turn, tagging candidates based on their party memberships.

Understanding Emigrant Voting Patterns

Ultimately, better analysis would be possible with more disaggregated data: election results from 2004 onwards for each country of residence, and migrant characteristics for each host country across time. Alternatively, one can look at a global perspective across different home and host countries, each with detailed and disaggregated election results. To better understand the link between migration and democratic diffusion worldwide, the MIGRADEMO team has assembled a unique dataset, the Emigrant Voting Patterns dataset, with 41 countries of origin, a total of more than 170 elections spanning the past two decades. Upcoming research utilizing this novel dataset aims to adjudicate between the political socialization and migrant selection hypotheses to inform our understanding of the process of diffusion from host countries to the homeland.

Evidence on how migrants vote is far from conclusive. Existing research suggests varied but also contradicting explanations behind emigrant voting patterns: (1) migrants’ political preferences change due to host country environments (Fidrmuc and Doyle 2006Sevi et al 2019), and (2) migrant self-selection, i.e. certain migrant types go to host countries that reflect their preferences, drives the differences in voting (Jaulin 2016Lesinska 2019).

While migrants are rarely pivotal to the final result, studying their voting behavior can be illuminating, not just of their political preferences, but the potential impact of their migration experience as well. Indeed, the continuous growth in migration and the rapidly changing political environments in host and home countries necessitate a data-driven approach to identifying migrants as potential agents for change. 

[1] The Philippines has a first-past-the-post system in elections, where the candidate with the highest number of votes is considered the winner. There are no run-off elections even when the winning candidate has not received a majority of the vote.

[2] This happens against the backdrop of more countries enfranchising their migrants (see Fliess and Østergaard-Nielsen (2021) for a review). 

[3] The Survey of Overseas Filipinos found that the number of Filipino migrant workers decreased by 18.6% from 2019 to 2020, mostly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

[4] In contrast, Filipinos at home are less likely to be low-skilled: 25.6% in elementary occupations, 19.6% in service and sales, and 7.9% in plant and machine operations. A larger proportion is high-skilled: 15% of domestic Filipinos are managers and professionals, while this figure is only 9.7% for Filipino migrants.

[6] The reason behind his rise is beyond the scope of this article, although most pundits claim that social media played a central role.

[7] Compared to the historical diaspora turnout of 27% in 2010 and 65% in 2004, domestic turnout has been consistently high, ranging from 73-82% in the past decades.

[8] In 2010, regional vote shares suggested the opposite: voters from Europe and the Americas gave Aquino stronger support (61-63%), while those from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia Pacific supported him less (51-58%). Due to lack of data, only regional-level shares are available for 2010, and only the diaspora aggregate share is available for 2004. We use the latest available Polity score data for the Philippines, 2018 for 2022. 

[9] In the Polity score data, the United States, for example, saw a decrease from 10 (full democracy) since the 1970s to 8 (democracy) starting in 2016 and finally 5 (open anocracy) in 2020.