Misplaced nostalgia for deciding Philippine presidency

Holds space while article actions load

It’s hard to shoot over the record of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a man with a movie star appearance who manipulated the political machine, plundered the state for $ 10 billion and was responsible for the death and torture of thousands of his opponents. tens of thousands more. With his shoe collection – not to mention 888 handbags, 71 pairs of sunglasses and 65 umbrellas – his wife Imelda became a word for autocratic profits.

And yet, less than four decades after Marcos was forced to flee Manila in a U.S. Air Force plane, his son appears to be on his way back to Malacañang Palace. Despite studies last year suggesting an overwhelmingly popular preference for incumbent Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter Sara, she instead agreed to compete for the separate vice presidential race, leaving Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, a freer race for the top spot. Now campaigning in “tandem” with the younger Duterte, polls put the Marcos family ahead across the country, with an almost unassailable lead over his closest rival, opposition icon and current vice president, Leni Robredo.

Even in a country known for its dynasties, the prospect of a Marcos victory is not politics as usual. It is the culmination of a decades-long effort by a devoted kleptocrat family to nurture a fantasy and their deliberate distortion of the collective memory. It helps that a majority of voters are between 18 and 40, but it is also the result of the broken promises of the 1986 peaceful uprising that has left economic and political power still dizzyingly concentrated. And in more ways than one, it’s the natural conclusion of the six-year presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, a supposed man of the people who forged alliances with old-school elites, eroded civil liberties, and talked about martial law.

An already fragile democracy and an economy struggling to recover from the effects of Covid-19 will bear the cost.

Political clans are the building blocks of power in the Philippines, thanks to a system of weak parties where privileges are entrenched and local dominions – Ilocos Norte for Marcoses – are maintained. Clans have, on average, accounted for 70% of the legislators elected to the lower house from 1987 to 2016. Many of these families have hung on to economic and political power through generations of colonial regimes and republics. Despite a provision in the 1987 Constitution that sought to restrict the holding of several posts in one family, no authorization law was enacted.

But Marcos’ likely victory is more than that. This is the price the family has been seeking since the days of exile. By preserving considerable wealth and influence, they quickly regained political precedence when they returned to the Philippines. Bongbong was elected to Congress in 1992, three years after his father’s death, and the family has held a number of posts since. They have consistently played up the Marcos myth, leaning on Matriarch Imelda’s continued appeal and mixing past with present, as with their insistence on getting the autocrat’s body back to the Philippines and on his funeral at the Hero Cemetery in Manila, allowed by Duterte shortly after , that he joined in 2016.

Sons should not be held responsible for the sins of their fathers. But the whole younger Marcos’ presidential campaign has only been remarkable for two things. First, a lack of substance, as political scientist Aries Arugay, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, explains as a strategy to defend a lead in opinion polls that can only be eroded by providing political details; and second, its dependence on a glorified past. Where Robredo has emphasized his experience and competence, Marcos’ driving force has used the slogan “Sama-sama tayong babangon muli” (“Together we will rise again”), produced glossy official mini-films with reminiscences of sounding music and black-and-white recordings of the great years and promoted martial arts songs that were jazzed up for the TikTok generation.

With that comes a worryingly selective memory. Marcos refers to the high growth rates in the early 1970s and the perception of low crime – but not the crumbling mid-1980s, high foreign debt, import restrictions and unemployment. He has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the brutal side of a regime that, according to Amnesty International, imprisoned some 70,000 people over the nine years of martial law, tortured 34,000 and killed over 3,200. “I want to say sorry for the thousands and thousands of miles [of roads] was built? ” Marcos asked in 2015. “What should I say sorry about?”

How has this failure – with worrying implications for other nations struggling with past mistakes, doomed to repeat them – been possible? First, history teaching in Philippine schools has tended to even out the war law period, and recent education reforms have allowed students to drop out of high school. As sociologist Gretchen Abuso points out, there is no official mechanism that forces appropriate recollection of the past, something other post-authoritarian states have introduced. None of this is helped by the fact that post-Marcos governments do not hold the family accountable. “Alibaba is gone, but the 40 thieves are left,” as Cardinal Jaime Sin, the late Archbishop of Manila, (1) once put it.

Then there are the social media, where a clever Marcos image-creating campaign has made it possible for the revisionist narrative to fill the gap after poor education. Filipinos spend more time on social media than almost any other nation on earth, and they are heavily dependent on online “influencers” for their opinions. While about one-fifth of respondents globally on average said they used influencers as a source of information, more than half of Filipinos did so. “The perception is genuine,” as Imelda says in a 2019 documentary about her, “and the truth is not.”

All of this thrives in fertile terrain given that so few Filipinos, especially outside of Manila, feel that democracy has brought much economic or political change. Similar families are responsible. Society remains deeply unequal and is now also crushed by a pandemic that hit livelihoods and punished the youngest, kept out of personal schooling for almost two years.

More reason, of course, to look forward to a leader who can guarantee openness and with a coherent vision bring investment and positive economic change. Filipinos choose instead to look back.

“There is nothing in [the Marcos-Duterte] tandem indicating that they will solve the democratic deficit. “You can not say that they are different from their fathers, because they see nothing wrong with the way their fathers behaved,” Arugay told me. ‘Worse is that they have neither the fathers’ competence nor their charisma. There will be a sequel, but like all sequels, it will be worse than the original. ” More from other authors on Bloomberg Opinion:

• Pandemic shows the limits of Dutertismo: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Pacquiao is not the hero the Philippines needs: Matthew Brooker

• The Philippines is a hotspot in the new Cold War: Hal Brands

(1) Quoted in Jon Quah, “Combatting Corruption,” in “Routledge Handbook of the Contemporary Philippines,” 2018

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial staff covering raw materials and environmental, social and administrative issues. Previously, she was associate editor of Reuters Breakingviews and editor and correspondent of Reuters in Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.