A return to the dark era: how did the Philippines elect former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s son?
Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, popularly known as Bongbong, will be the Philippines’ 17th president starting on 30 June. How did the son and namesake of a man known worldwide as a brutal dictator and one of the world’s worst kleptocrats, who drove his country to economic bankruptcy, manage to win an electoral landslide 36 years after his father was ousted?
Philippine democracy is in tatters after six years of Rodrigo Duterte’s government, notorious for brazen killings under its ‘war on drugs’, muzzling the media and disregarding the rule of law. With Duterte’s daughter Sara elected to the vice-presidency, it seems that the Philippines’ future is getting more and more similar to its dark past.
Patronage politics continues to dominate
The wide margin won by the Marcos-Duterte tandem, as well as the results of the Senatorial race, proved that Philippine elections are still dominated by the well-entrenched machineries of political dynasties which rely on patronage politics.
‘Political dynasties’ refers to politically influential families that monopolise public offices from generation to generation, treating it almost as their birth right and personal property. Their roots are in their provinces. Local politicians depend on them for largesse, which they in turn use to distribute favours to local residents – assistance with hospital or funeral bills, scholarships or support in times of catastrophes. Local folks and their families see those favours as ‘social debts’, which are translated into votes on election days.
Political dynasties are power gatekeepers. They have very close relationships with business tycoons who support their electoral campaigns. To get elected in national offices they forge relationships with fellow political clans in other provinces to extend their clout. Given the Philippines has around 7,100 islands, running a national election campaign requires huge funds. The Marcos-Duterte ticket was a powerful combination, which brought together political clans from both the north and southern part of the Philippines.
The Marcos dynasty
The Marcos family is one of the most successful and notable political dynasties from the Philippine northern province of Ilocos, going back over a century. Marcos Jr’s great grandfather, Fabian Marcos, was a gobernadorcillo (equivalent to mayor) after the Philippine revolution from Spain in 1898. His son, Mariano Marcos, was elected to the Philippine Congress in 1925. In turn, his son, Ferdinand Marcos Sr, became the country’s 10th president in 1965. He declared martial law in 1972 and was only ousted in 1986.
Following his ousting and the family’s exile in Hawaii resulting from a mass popular struggle called the EDSA Revolution (named after the main thoroughfare where it happened in Manila), Corazon Aquino came to power through a revolutionary government. She served a single presidential term from 1986 to 1992, despite the unique qualification that she was not covered by the single-term presidency provision in the 1987 constitution.
The Marcos family exile proved to be short-lived. Aquino herself allowed the family’s return to face various court charges in 1991, after Ferdinand Marcos’s death in 1989. That was actually a precondition by the Swiss government in exchange for cooperation with the Philippine government in its efforts to recover the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth. After multiple, lengthy and complicated court battles, a few hundred million pesos were recovered through successful prosecution. Some of the money compensated some victims of martial law.
Imelda Marcos, Philippines’ ‘Iron Butterfly’ and Ferdinand’s wife, was as ambitious as her husband. Her first post was as governor of Metro Manila, appointed by her husband, from 1975 to 1986, and minister of human settlements from 1978 to 1986. Ferdinand and Imelda’s daughter, Maria Imelda or Imee, was appointed chair of the youth council and held the post from 1974 to 1986. These posts did not exist before and were created by Marcos for the family.
Imee was elected to the Philippine Congress in 1998 as Ilocos Norte representative, and was re-elected in 2001 and 2004. In 2010, she was elected governor and served for three consecutive terms. She is now a Senator. Marcos Jr began his political career as elected vice-governor in 1980 at age 23. The country was still under martial law then, he ran unopposed. He was elected to Congress in 1992 and as governor of Ilocos Norte in 1998 to 2007. He was in Congress from 2007 to 2010 and was elected Senator in 2010.
The family have taken turns occupying posts as governor, Congress representative and Senator since 1992. Bongbong’s son Sandro was also elected in Congress in the recent elections.
Vote-buying, anomalies and other election plagues
It is an ‘open secret’ that vote-buying is part of the electoral culture in the Philippines, and the practice makes or breaks political dynasties and clans. There were allegations of vote-buying in many areas, which reportedly even boosted the local economy. Vote-buying was not limited to election day this time, but also covered election rallies – there were allegations of payments received by attendees of Marcos-Duterte events.
Closest rival candidate Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer and current vice-president (elected independently in 2016 and not from Duterte’s party), lacked the financial resources to match the billions of campaign funds mobilised by the combined Marcos-Duterte machinery. While Marcos Jr and Robredo’s reported broadcast media campaign ads spending was almost similar, it appears they were not playing by the same rules as there were allegations of intimidation on top of vote buying by the Marcos camp.
Thousands of Robredo supporters did house-to-house campaigns and unlike Marcos supporters who received money from Marcos, they actually used their own money to produce the Robredo campaign’s pink-themed tarps, wristbands and t-shirts and distribute food at rallies. Artists, bands and actors wrote songs, painted murals, performed and endorsed her campaign on social media for free. Hundreds of thousands joined her rallies in many key cities – the last one held in Manila had 700,000 attendees. Those rallies were the biggest in Philippine electoral history.
Regaining popularity and power
Running against well-entrenched gatekeepers and well-oiled machinery is an uphill battle. But the toughest battle was on fighting fake news and historical revisionism and distortion on social media propagated by Marcos Jr’s army of trolls. Robredo’s campaign in just six months generated a lot of inspiration and put up a very good fight but time was not on their side.
Social media was central to Marcos’s campaign. However, he shunned TV debates and avoided questions from media seen as unfriendly. He did this because the accusations against him are unequivocally grounded in actual court decisions. He is a convicted tax evader and Imelda Marcos has been convicted of seven counts of graft. However, neither served prison time owing to the country’s weak judiciary. Internet trolls spread lies about Robredo and distorted the history of the Marcos dictatorship and martial law. Such historical denialism will sadly continue.
Marcos’s popularity can also be attributed to the failure of the country’s educational system to educate the population about the brutality of the martial law period. Equally responsible are the weakness of the media and the role of the church in dumbing down social and political consciousness. What has been lost, and with terrible effect, is the collective social memory. There is also the bigger factor of the socio-economic conditions that make a large segment of the population vulnerable to historical distortion and denialism.
Return of the Marcoses is part of a wider global problem
The Marcos’s restoration to power presents a crisis not just to Philippine democracy. The inclination towards authoritarianism and the rejection of liberal democracy, trolling and manipulation by the far-right media are globally shared problems. Bongbong ran a Trumpian campaign.
It is expected that the already limited progress in holding the Marcoses to account for their various crimes and violations while they were out of power will grind to a halt now the Marcos family are back in power. What will now happen to an existing US verdict, which holds Bongbong in contempt of court for failing to pay reparations to victims of his father’s human rights violations?
The Philippines is in a key geopolitical location. The question of how the Philippines relates to both China and the US in the coming years is key.
This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.
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Photo: A protest in Quezon City in February to mark the 36th anniversary of the People Power revolution, which toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Credit: Basilio Sepe/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock