Clara Ferreira Marques

Misplaced Nostalgia to Decide Philippine Presidency

It’s hard to gloss over the record of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a man with film-star looks who manipulated the political machine, plundered the state to the tune of $10 billion, and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of his opponents and the torture of tens of thousands more. His wife Imelda, with her shoe collection — not to mention 888 handbags, 71 pairs of sunglasses and 65 parasols — became a byword for autocratic excess.

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 the Malacañang Palace. Despite surveys last year suggesting an overwhelming popular preference for incumbent Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter Sara, she agreed to instead contest the separate vice presidential race, leaving Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, a freer run at for the top spot. Now campaigning in “tandem” with the younger Duterte, polls put the Marcos family scion ahead across the country, with a near-unassailable lead over his nearest rival, opposition icon and the current vice president, Leni Robredo.

Even in a country known for its dynasties, the prospect of a Marcos victory isn’t politics as usual. It’s the culmination of a decades-long effort by the family of a deposed kleptocrat to nurture a fantasy, and of their willful distortion of collective memory. It helps that a majority of voters are between 18 and 40, but it’s also the result of the broken promises of 1986’s peaceful uprising that have left economic and political power still staggeringly concentrated. And, in more ways than one, it’s the natural conclusion to 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 up martial law.

An already fragile democracy and an economy struggling to recover from the impacts 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 privilege is entrenched and local fiefdoms — Ilocos Norte for the Marcoses — are tightly held. Clans have accounted for an average of 70% of legislators elected to the lower house from 1987 to 2016. Many of those 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 limit the holding of multiple positions in one family, no enabling law was passed.

But Marcos’ likely victory is more than that. It’s the prize the family has sought from the days of exile. Retaining substantial wealth and influence, they rapidly regained political primacy once 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 raft of positions since. They’ve consistently played up the Marcos myth, leaning on matriarch Imelda’s continued appeal and mixing the past with the present, as with their insistence on the return of the autocrat’s body to the Philippines and on his burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila, allowed by Duterte shortly after he took office in 2016.

Sons should not be held responsible for the sins of their fathers. But the younger Marcos’ entire presidential campaign has been notable for only two things. First, a lack of substance that political scientist Aries Arugay, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, explains as a strategy to defend a lead in polls that can only be eroded by providing policy specifics; and second, its reliance on a glorified past. Where Robredo has emphasized her experience and competence, Marcos’ drive has used the slogan “Sama-sama tayong babangon muli” (“Together we will rise again”), churned out glossy official minifilms featuring reminiscences against tinkling music and black-and-white footage of the glory years, and promoted martial-law-era songs jazzed up for the TikTok generation.

With that comes a troubling selective memory. Marcos refers to the high growth rates of the early 1970s and perceptions of low crime — but not the crumbling mid-1980s, high external 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 during the nine years of martial law, tortured 34,000 and killed over 3,200. “Will I say sorry for the thousands and thousands of kilometers [of roads] that were built?” Marcos asked in 2015. “What am I to say sorry about?”

How has this failure — with worrying implications for other nations wrestling with the errors of the past, condemned to repeat them — been possible? For one, teaching history in Filipino schools has tended to gloss over the martial law period, and recent education reforms have allowed students to drop the subject in high school. As sociologist Gretchen Abuso points out, there’s no official mechanism compelling appropriate remembrance of the past, something other post-authoritarian states have put in place. None of this is helped by the failure of post-Marcos governments to hold the family to account. “Alibaba is gone, but the 40 thieves remain,” as Cardinal Jaime Sin, the late archbishop of Manila, once put it.

Then there’s social media, where a canny Marcos image-building campaign has enabled the revisionist narrative to fill the gap left by poor education. Filipinos spend more time on social media than almost any other nation on earth, and they heavily depend on online “influencers” for their opinions. While on average about a fifth of respondents globally said they used influencers as a source of information, more than half of Filipinos did. “Perception is real,” as Imelda says in a 2019 documentary about her, “and the truth is not.”

All of this thrives on fertile terrain, given that so few Filipinos, especially outside Manila, feel like democracy has brought much economic or political change. Similar families are in charge. Society remains deeply unequal, and is now also bruised by a pandemic that battered livelihoods and punished the youngest, kept out of in-person school for virtually 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 are choosing to look backward instead.

“There is nothing in [the Marcos-Duterte] tandem that suggests they will address the democratic deficit. You can’t say they are different to their fathers, because they see nothing wrong with the way their fathers acted,” Arugay told me. “Worse, they have neither the competence nor the charisma of the fathers. There will be a sequel, but like all sequels, it will be worse than the original.”