World Affairs: The Phillippines

Philippines: Ferdinand Marcos Jr wins landslide victory in presidential election

Print edition : June 03, 2022

Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Sara Duterte, his running mate, during their last campaign rally, on May 7 in Paranaque city, the Philippines. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

Leni Robredo, the outgoing Vice President. Marcos inflicted a massive defeat on her in the presidential election. Photo: Office of the Vice President/AP

Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Eloisa Lopez/REUTERS

November 1969: President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda with their children (from left) Bongbong, Irene and Imee in Manila. Photo: AP

With Ferdinand Marcos Junior and Sara Duterte Carpio, both children of leaders who had scant regard for human rights and the rule of law, recording landslide victories in the May 9 election, the country may be in for six more years of authoritarian rule.

As the opinion polls have been predicting for some months now, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Junior, won the May 9 presidential election in the Philippines by a landslide margin. He is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, a former President of the country whose legacy is still hotly contested. Six years ago, Marcos Jr narrowly lost his bid to become Vice President. Leni Robredo defeated him. Now Marcos has exacted sweet revenge by inflicting a massive defeat on her in the presidential election.

Leni Robredo, a 57-year-old lawyer by training, had run her campaign on a platform that promised to root out corruption and clean up the country’s politics. Marcos, however, was a clear front runner from the beginning though his poll ratings only started skyrocketing after Sara Duterte Carpio, the daughter of the current President, Rodrigo Duterte, decided to team up with him and run for the office of Vice President. In the Philippines, the President and the Vice President are elected on separate ballots. Sara Duterte’s reasons for not seeking the presidency herself are still a mystery as she was consistently faring better than Marcos in opinion poll surveys in the months prior to the election.

She handily won the Vice President’s post with a much bigger margin than that recorded by Marcos in the presidential election. Sarah Duterte has been in politics for many years now. The Duterte family has been running Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao for decades. Rodrigo Duterte had reluctantly supported his daughter’s run for the vice presidency. He was critical of Marcos initially and had once accused him of being “a drug user” and a “weak leader”. However, Duterte helped to facilitate the reburial of Ferdinand Marcos in the hero’s cemetery in Manila soon after he became President. This was a long-standing demand of the Marcos family and their growing number of supporters.

Marcos and Sara Duterte coasted to victory without even bothering to spell out the specifics of their programme or engage in debates with their rivals. Most observers of the Philippines’ political scene expect Marcos to continue with most of the policies of the Duterte administration. He has said that he will continue with his predecessor’s foreign policy. Duterte had reversed the previous administrations’ anti-China policy and strengthened ties with Beijing. Marcos has pledged to further strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with China. The Philippines, a former American colony, also has long-standing military ties with the United States. Just before Duterte took office in 2016, the government led by Benigno Aquino III signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the U.S., which once again gave the U.S. military access to bases in the Philippines.

Also read: Can Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president mend E.U. ties?

There are reports that Marcos could tone down Duterte’s notorious war on drugs in which thousands of people have been killed. Duterte’s “drug war” is under investigation by the International Criminal Court. There are fears that the court could ask for Duterte’s extradition once he demits office. It was the fear of arrest that prompted Duterte initially to explore a run for the office of Vice President this year. Presidents in the Philippines are allowed only a single six-year term in office. The President-elect has said that he will try to shield Duterte from the proceedings of the international court.

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament and the chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said: “The victory of the son of a dictator and the daughter of a human rights abuser, both of whom have staunchly defended the legacy of their fathers, does not bode well for the restoration of the rule of law and respect for human rights in the country.” Marcos Jr made his father’s legacy the centrepiece of his campaign.

‘Constitutional authoritarianism’

Ferdinand Marcos Sr came to power through the ballot box in 1965 but soon turned into an authoritarian ruler brooking no opposition. In 1972, as strikes and protests started spreading during his second term in office, Marcos declared “martial law”, citing “the danger of communism”. He gave the military extraordinary powers, banned all strikes and imposed strict restrictions on the media. Marcos had described his rule as “constitutional authoritarianism”.

Marcos had the backing of Washington while he was in power. His wife, Imelda Marcos, played an important supporting role during his almost two-decades-long rule. Filipinos in those days used to sarcastically describe their years in power as the “conjugal dictatorship”. The Marcoses are known to have embezzled billions of dollars. Some estimates say that it was more than $10 billion. During the Marcos era, the Philippines’ national debt ballooned to $26 billion. Marcos was ousted from power by massive street protests in the 1986 “People Power Revolution”.

According to human rights groups, 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 tortured and 3,240 killed during the Marcos presidency. More than 11,000 martial law victims received compensation from a fund created with money recovered from the Marcos’ Swiss bank accounts. They are still being sued for corruption in dozens of cases filed by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), which was created in 1986 to recover the billions of dollars allegedly salted away by the Marcos family. The President-elect has said that he will strengthen the PCGG so that it can also go after other politicians and their families who are known to be corrupt.

Bongbong Marcos was sentenced to three years in prison in 1995 on tax-related issues, but his sentence was overturned two years later. His opponents have said that they will not give up their efforts to get him disqualified for his conviction in the tax case and to extract billions of dollars from the family for unpaid estate taxes. In 2018, his mother, Imelda, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for creating private foundations to hide her unexplained wealth.

The People Power Revolution was a landmark event in the history of South-East Asia and an inspiration for people fighting authoritarian rule all over the world. Many South-East Asian countries like Indonesia were under military dictatorships in that period. Defying the security forces deployed by Marcos, Filipinos from all walks of life joined in massive protests on the streets of Manila and other cities that lasted for months. Public anger was fuelled by the rampant corruption and cronyism that was the hallmark of the Marcos years. The killing of the opposition politician Benigno Aquino had also infuriated the public. Aquino was assassinated in 1983 immediately after disembarking from a plane bringing him back to Manila from exile in the U.S. The circumstances behind his assassination continue to be murky, but at the time most Filipinos held the Marcoses responsible for the crime.

The Aquino and Marcos families have been political rivals for generations. Aquino’s wife, Corazon Aquino, succeeded Marcos in the election held after his ouster from power, and Benigno Aquino III, her son, also had the distinction of being a President of the country.

After the death of Marcos Sr in Hawaii in 1989, the rest of the family, including Imelda Marcos, were allowed to return home. They plunged right back into politics. The Marcos family had retained its popularity in its home province of Ilocos Norte, which it carefully nurtured during the Marcos presidency. Imelda Marcos went on to make two unsuccessful bids for the presidency, the first one in 1992. Since then, she along with Bongbong and her daughters Imee and Irene have been permanent fixtures in Philippine politics, either winning Senate or congressional races or lording over the affairs of their home province.

By 2010, the family had started making serious plans to once again reoccupy the Malacanang Palace, the official residence of the President. With this goal in view, the Marcoses, according to many commentators, successfully harnessed social media to rehabilitate the family’s image and delegitimise the people’s power movement. On social media, “the martial law era” is portrayed as a “golden period” in the Philippines’ history that had improved living conditions in the country.

Social media sites supportive of the Marcos candidacy have been on overdrive. Videos and posts circulating on Facebook and TikTok claimed that those opposing the Marcos-Duterte ticket had a secret communist agenda. A Facebook executive once described the Philippines as “patient zero” of the global disinformation epidemic. The President-elect described his father as “a political genius”. The majority of Filipino voters are under the age of 40 and have no memory of the Marcos years.

Leni Robredo warned: “This election is not just a fight for elected positions. It is also a fight against disinformation, fake news and historical revisionism.” She tried to pose as the defender of the “people’s power”. At the same time, she had cosied up to the government-backed National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict that President Duterte created. The job of the task force was to hunt down those fighting for agrarian reforms.

Also read: People wearing pink ahead of Philippine elections

The return of the Marcos dynasty has a lot to do with the failure of those associated with the People Power Revolution to institute genuine reforms after coming to power. No President since 1986 has so far seriously tried to solve the issues emanating from the wealth disparity in the country. Land reforms have been put on the back burner. A few big landowning families still continue to dominate politics after more than seven decades of independence. A 2019 survey revealed that 234 families in the Philippines, a country with a population of 110 million, held more than 67 per cent of the seats in the legislature and 83 per cent of the Governors’ posts.

Fewer than a hundred individuals have profited from the country’s wealth increase in the last decade. A good part of that growth comes from remittances of millions of Filipinos toiling in foreign countries at low-paying jobs. Ten per cent of the country’s population has no option but to look for jobs outside the country, leaving families separated. Millions of Filipinos still live below the poverty line. A 2019 survey found that 64 per cent of Filipino households experience food insecurity.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) is also responsible to an extent for the rise of both Duterte and Marcos Jr. It backed Marcos when he successfully ran for the Senate in 2010. The CPP also had a brief honeymoon with Duterte and supported him when he ran in 2016. The party had said that Duterte had left-wing leanings and would be the country’s “first socialist President”. Duterte had in fact offered the CPP Cabinet posts after his victory, but the deal did not fructify as the CPP’s armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), refused to give up its struggle for genuine political and agrarian reforms. Within a year, the relationship had turned sour, and Duterte once again ordered the army to root out the NPA fighters in the countryside.

The Philippines may be in for another six years of authoritarian rule, which, according to a poll taken in 2017, more than half of the country actually prefers. A large number of people also approve of military rule. Duterte had come to power promising to physically eliminate drug dealers and users. He was true to his word. An acquiescent judiciary and legislature facilitated his bloodletting. A small section of the news media that remained independent was muzzled. It is highly unlikely that the children of two authoritarian rulers who will now be in charge of the country will change course. Both of them have vowed to continue and improve on Duterte’s so-called achievements.