What is behind the resurgence of the Marcos dynasty?

Former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ son ‘Bongbong’ is on course to become the president of the Philippines in May 2022.

Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr, gestures after filing his candidacy for the country's 2022 presidential race, at Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent in Pasay on October 6, 2021 [File: Rouelle Umali/AFP]

“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial,” Singapore’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew wrote in his 2000 legacy book, From Third World to First. “Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.”

Today, more than 20 years after Lee publicly questioned the Philippines’ unfathomably forgiving attitude towards the Marcoses, the infamous political dynasty is within striking distance of reclaiming the Malacanang Palace. The sole son and namesake of the late Filipino dictator, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, has now emerged as the clear frontrunner to replace the incumbent populist President Rodrigo Duterte.

A recent survey has shown that the former dictator’s son can count on the support of close to half of all Filipino voters in the May 9, 2022 presidential election. His closest rival, Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, has struggled to secure the support of even just a quarter of prospective voters. Having already convinced presidential daughter Sara Duterte to become his running mate, Marcos Jr currently enjoys a large lead just months removed from the election day. Since the Philippines has a single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system, where there are no runoff elections, Marcos Jr just needs to win more votes than all other candidates to clinch the presidency.

Former First Lady Imelda Marcos, notorious for her extravagance and rhetorical flourish, is now preparing to reclaim her place of pride in the presidential palace. While it is true that Philippine elections are widely unpredictable, the meteoric resurgence of the Marcoses is itself a stinging judgement on the profound failures of the country’s democratic institutions. Decades of judicial impunity, historical whitewashing, corruption-infested politics and exclusionary economic growth has driven a growing number of Filipinos into the Marcoses’ embrace.

A disastrous dictatorship

Upon launching his bid for the presidency this year, Bongbong touted a “unifying leadership”, which would supposedly make the Philippines great again. Though not openly advocating for a return to dictatorship, the former senator has claimed that “if my father was allowed to pursue his plans, I believe that we would be like Singapore now.” This is rather ironic, as the leader who made Singapore what it is today, Lee Kuan Yew, once described Marcos Sr as “a self-indulgent ageing ruler who allowed his wife and cronies to clean out the country through ingenious monopolies and put the government heavily in debt”.

Indeed, by every objective indicator, the Marcos dictatorship has been disastrous for the  Philippines.

In the early 1960s, before Marcos became president, the Philippines possessed one of the most dynamic economies in the world. This is why in 1965 Manila was chosen as the headquarters for the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a leading international financial institution, over the likes of Seoul, Tehran and Tokyo. But everything started to change after Marcos assumed the Philippine presidency shortly after the establishment of the ADB in Manila. By the time Marcos stepped down from power amid nationwide protests 21 years later in 1986, the Southeast Asian country was economically bankrupt and institutionally broken.

The dictatorship years were at once marked by extreme brutality and endemic corruption. Following Marcos’s declaration of Martial Law in 1972, thousands of Filipino activists, journalists and suspected dissidents were tortured. Some disappeared forever. Independent media outlets were shuttered, while the Philippines’ American-style two-party system was abolished.

Notwithstanding a few years of rapid economic growth, the former Filipino strongmen oversaw a kleptocratic regime that crashed into insolvency in the early 1980s. Regime cronies became billionaires while the vast majority of the population was driven into destitution.

By some estimates, the Philippines is expected to pay the inherited debt from the Marcos era until 2025. During his 20 years in power, Marcos miserably failed to replicate the economic miracles and global industries, which emerged in neighbouring South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.

But in the three decades since the downfall of the Marcos regime, bar a few exceptions, democratically-elected Philippine leaders have also failed to deliver on their promises of freedom and prosperity.

The facade of democracy

While restoring basic political freedoms, the Philippines’ 1987 constitution, which was promulgated after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, largely protected the interest of political dynasties’ as well as major monopolies by deliberately shunning radical reforms.

As a result, the Philippines is still largely controlled by a scandalously narrow elite – more than 70 percent of elected positions in the country are controlled by political dynasties. In the Philippine Congress, the proportion has reached more than 80 percent in recent years.

Amid rapid economic growth in the early 2010s, the World Bank reported that 40 richest business families, which tend to also control political parties and major media outlets, swallowed three-quarters of newly-created prosperity.

Government agencies, meanwhile, remained woefully underfunded, packed with political appointees and infested with corruption. The most notorious case is the Philippine judiciary, where many overworked judges and clerks have confronted the twin evils of intimidation and bribery.

No wonder then, the Marcoses, despite being convicted of various criminal charges, never served any sentence. Back in 2018, the Philippine Supreme Court convicted Imelda Marcos of corruption, yet the former first lady is still out and about.

Her son, Bongbong, was convicted of a violation of the tax code, and yet he has been allowed to run for and occupy multiple offices throughout the decades. Systemic impunity has gone hand in hand with historical whitewashing in the country’s educational institutions as well as the seamless online proliferation of pro-Marcos propaganda.

The pitiful deficiencies of Philippine democracy explain why the majority of Filipinos repeatedly say in surveys that they would support “a strong leader”, who does not have to bother with either elections or legislative scrutiny.

In a 2020 Pew Research Centre survey, almost half (47 percent) of Filipino respondents said “most elected officials do not care” about the interests and thoughts of common voters. An earlier Pew survey in 2017 showed that just about 15 percent of Filipinos were fully committed to a liberal democratic system, while more than 80 percent expressed openness to a potentially authoritarian leader. Astonishingly, new members of the burgeoning Filipino middle class, who regularly visit neighbouring countries such as Singapore, tend to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of authoritarian leadership in the Philippines.

A century ago, Spanish novelist George Santayana warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. In the Philippines, this warning has proved prescient. The memories of the pain Marcos inflicted on the country have been replaced by nostalgia for an imaginary “golden age” under the late dictator. And this nostalgia, coupled with many failures of democratic politics, paved the way for the resurgence of the Marcoses.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.