Almost 50 years since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of martial law in the Philippines, his son has emerged as frontrunner to become the country’s next president.
According to an authoritative survey of presidential candidates by Social Weather Stations, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is attracting close to half of total votes among prospective voters.
His closest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, secured fewer than half of prospective votes (18%). This marks, by far, the largest lead enjoyed by a presidential frontrunner in recent memory just a few months ahead of Election Day on May 9, 2022.
In the Philippines’ strangely frugal electoral system, all Marcos Jr. needs to do to become the next president is to secure the largest share of votes. The eventual victor in 1992, Fidel Ramos, only had to secure 23.5% of the votes in the Philippines’ single-round, first-past-the-post electoral race.
To be fair, Philippine elections tend to be widely unpredictable, best exemplified by the formerly obscure populist Rodrigo Duterte’s landslide victory in the 2016 elections. Not to mention, Marcos Jr. faces multiple disqualification complaints based on a prior tax evasion conviction, and so the fate of his candidacy is far from assured. In short, nothing is set in stone, and much still can change in the coming months, if not weeks.
Nevertheless, the astonishing resurgence of the Marcos family begs a fundamental question: How can the heirs of one of the most notoriously corrupt dictatorships in Asia get so close to reclaiming the Malacanang Palace anew? The answer can be found in the intersection of two interrelated phenomena — namely democracy fatigue, or declining confidence in democratic institutions and liberal politics; and authoritarian nostalgia, which can best be described as a yearning for a decisive and single-minded leader to efficiently deliver public services. The Marcos dynasty has been masterful in exploiting the toxic cocktail of widespread cynicism toward democracy and stubborn naivete toward authoritarian leaders.
The perils of elite democracy
After 21 years in power, Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by a civilian-backed coup in 1986. The brazen assassination of poplar opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino II, coupled with a deep economic crisis, heavily eroded the dictatorial regime in the early 1980s. Following a coup by his top defense officials, which was backed by massive “people power” protests across major cities, the Marcos family was forced into exile in Hawaii.
The departure of the Filipino dictator, who exploited institutional weaknesses in the post-war American-style Philippine democracy, provided a unique opportunity for transformative policies in a deeply unequal society. But instead of radical reform, the post-Marcosian leadership, led by Ninoy’s widow, Corazon Aquino, largely oversaw the return of the old oligarchies to power.
Although well-intentioned and heroically committed to preserving basic political freedoms, Aquino’s term was racked by multiple coups and the oligarchic recapture of democratic institutions. The 1987 Constitution, which was specifically designed to prevent another Marcosian dictatorship, lacked even basic provisions to truly strengthen political parties, empower marginalized sectors and ensure a free and independent media.
The upshot was the oligarchic capture of the commanding heights of the economy as well as the bulk of the elected offices. To put things into perspective, at least 70% of elected legislative positions in the Philippines are dominated by political dynasties, namely blood-related individuals from well-established political families dominating the majority of provincial positions in the country.
Despite rapid economic growth in the past decade, largely thanks to macro-reforms implemented by former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the Philippines has also largely lacked inclusive development. In 2013, the 40 richest families, who control key sectors of the economy, including giant media networks, gobbled up 76% of newly created growth. For average Filipinos, oligarchic capture of the economy meant overpriced utility costs, unreliable internet and generally poor public infrastructure.
The power of nostalgia
In short, a narrow elite has made a mockery out of the Philippines’ democratic aspirations, further fueling democracy fatigue among voters.
In a global survey in 2014, close to 6 in 10 Filipinos expressed their openness to vote for a leader, “who does not have to bother with elections.” In a more recent Pew Research Center survey, only 15% of Filipinos expressed full commitment to a liberal democracy, while a clear majority were open to authoritarian leaders. Overall, recent surveys show declining confidence in democratic politics.
A master of nostalgic politics and backed by legions of online propagandists, Marcos Jr. has presented himself as precisely the kind of decisive and single-minded leadership the Philippines needs in order to break out of its current developmental debacle. Incredibly, the ex-dictator’s son has gone so far as claiming that had his father not been toppled, the country would have become prosperous like neighboring Singapore.
But the Marcoses have also benefited from the failure of democratic leaders to build strong state institutions, which is reflected in the persistent weakness of the country’s judiciary as well as basic education. Notoriously under-resourced, with a single judge responsible for an average of 644 cases a year, Philippine courts have been prone to systemic corruption and miscarriage of justice. Impunity is the name of the game.
After only a few years in exile, the Marcoses were seamlessly allowed to re-enter the country in 1991 and, accordingly, re-establish their base of power in the northern provinces of the Philippines. Although both Marcos Jr. and his mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, have been convicted on various charges, neither of them have served any time in prison.
Meanwhile, basic education in the Philippines has largely failed to inculcate critical thinking and functional literacy among many students. Even high school history textbooks have broadly whitewashed the horrors of the Marcos dictatorship.
This largely explains why the Marcoses’ patently false narrative about the supposed “golden age” of dictatorships, which has stormed social media platforms, has gained traction among a growing number of voters, especially younger cohorts.
Much can still change between now and next year’s election, especially as rival candidates openly question the suspect credentials and tenuous claims of Marcos Jr., with particular attention paid to his education qualifications.
What’s clear, however, is that the Marcos family has clawed its way back to a shot at the presidency by exploiting systematic weaknesses in the Philippines as well as the shortcomings of the country’s democratically elected leaders over the past three decades.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.”
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