The Marcos dynasty is returning to the pinnacle of power in the Philippines. Almost exactly 50 years after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and established a dictatorship in the country, his namesake son is set to take over the Malacañang Presidential Palace.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr secured more than 30 million votes in the May 9 presidential election, nearly double that of his nearest rival, current Vice President Leni Robredo.
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The last time a Filipino leader enjoyed such a commanding electoral mandate was in 1969, when Marcos Sr became the first post-war president to win a re-election in the Philippines.
Naturally, critics fear that Bongbong will replicate his father’s dictatorial ambitions and, similar to outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, ditch Western democratic partners in favour of closer ties with China.
Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that Marcos Jr will have to share power with other major political dynasties.
Furthermore, unlike the Dutertes, the Marcoses neither have lifelong resentment towards the West, nor an inexplicable infatuation with authoritarian superpowers such as China and Russia. Thus, the incoming Filipino president will likely pursue far more balanced relations with superpowers.
The impending return of the Marcoses to the Malacañang is a result of the family’s decades-long efforts for a “counterrevolution”, namely overturning the 1986 “People Power” revolt that toppled their dynastic dictatorship. Indeed, Marcoses have been working against reformist forces and slowly inching towards regaining power in the Philippines since their return from exile in 1991.
As early as the 1992 elections, just years after the “People Power” revolt that topped their dictatorship, the Marcoses could have been restored to power had former First Lady Imelda Marcos and former Marcos crony Eduardo Cojuangco Jr joined forces.
The eventual victor, Fidel V Ramos, himself a distant cousin of the Marcoses, won with only 23 percent of the votes, far smaller than the combined votes (28 percent) garnered by the remnants of the former regime. Six years later, Joseph Estrada, a trusted ally, won the presidency in an electoral landslide, largely thanks to the backing of the Marcoses and their legions of loyalists.
Over the succeeding decades, the Marcoses continued to win various top positions in the government. Marcos Jr, for instance, has served as governor, congressman and senator throughout his political career. He lost the 2016 vice-presidential election by a razor-thin margin.
As I have previously written in these pages, since the early 1990s the Marcoses have been knocking at the doors of Malacañang by skilfully exploiting the shortcomings of the reformist administrations that came after them.
Instead of empowering citizens, post-Marcos administrations allowed the country’s key political offices and economic sectors to be dominated by a narrow and rapacious elite. More than 80 percent of elected legislative offices in the Philippines have been occupied by members and loyal supporters of prominent political dynasties, including the Marcoses, in the post-Marcosian era. In 2011, the 40 richest Filipino families on the Forbes wealth list accounted for 76 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
These failings by the reformists, coupled with the shortcomings of the judicial system that allowed Marcoses to contest top elected offices despite facing multiple graft and corruption charges and convictions, paved the way for the dynasty to create the necessary conditions for their return to power.
Meanwhile, a free-for-all social media space plus a sorely deficient education system proved a fertile ground for pro-Marcos networks of disinformation, which worked to convince the masses that the dark days of dictatorship were supposedly a “golden era” in Philippine history.
Marcos Jr’s election victory, however, was not in any way inevitable. Perhaps the single biggest contributor to his unprecedented electoral success was widely popular presidential daughter Sara Duterte’s decision to drop out of the presidential race.
All pre-election surveys showed that the longtime Davao Mayor was a shoo-in for the presidency had she not decided to slide down in favour of Marcos Jr. To put things into context, Bongbong had the support of merely 15 percent of prospective voters in pre-election surveys last year, while Sara enjoyed the support of close to a third of prospective voters.
But with the outgoing president prevaricating on supporting his daughter, and instead favouring his longtime protégé, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, as a potential successor, Sara Duterte decided to settle for the vice-presidential race, which she unsurprisingly dominated with even larger margins. Hailing from the southern island of Mindanao and the Visayan ethnolinguistic group, the Dutertes proved a crucial ally for the Marcoses, who hail from the north of the country and from the Ilocano ethnolinguistic group.
Marcos Jr also benefitted from the weaknesses in the opposition camp. To be fair, opposition leader Leni Robredo faced a formidable alliance composed of both the Marcoses and Dutertes. Not to mention confronting a broadly authoritarian-friendly electorate, which proved sceptical of her liberal-democratic political agenda.
But the opposition also suffered from indecisiveness as well as a lack of compelling narrative and a basic sense of urgency. While the Marcoses benefitted from a decades-long “Counterrevolutionary” campaign, the opposition managed to pull off big rallies, key endorsements and nationwide door-to-door campaigning only at the 11th hour. Had they been more organised and proactive early on, the opposition could have mounted a more decisive challenge against the Marcos-Duterte tandem.
The road ahead
The full restoration of the Marcoses to power, however, shouldn’t be a cause for total despair for the opposition. Despite losing the race, Robredo managed to spawn a new “Pink Movement”, which helped her garner close to 15 million votes, a 50 percent surge compared to the results obtained by former liberal opposition leader Manuel Roxas in the 2016 elections.
Bolstered by an army of dedicated and youthful volunteers and millions of progressive supporters from across the country, Robredo can yet emerge as a formidable opposition leader who could check the worst instincts of the incoming Marcos Jr administration.
Moreover, the incoming Filipino president will also face internal resistance should he try to concentrate power in the hands of his family. To begin with, he will need to take into consideration the interests of the Duterte family, who proved instrumental in the Marcoses’ restoration to power.
Accusing the Marcoses of cajoling his daughter out of the presidential race, outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly lambasted his successor as a “weak leader” and a “spoiled brat”. Widely popular among Filipinos, Duterte and his daughter will likely resist any attempt by the Marcoses to entrench themselves in power.
Although vowing policy continuity, Marcos Jr has promised to recalibrate the incumbent’s violent drug war in favour of a more rehabilitation-centred approach. On foreign policy, he has also taken a more balanced approach by emphasising the need to more vigorously defend the country’s territorial interests in the South China Sea, where the Philippines is at loggerheads with China.
Though the Marcoses clearly resent the multiple ill-gotten wealth cases they are facing in US courts, they have no lifelong resentment for the West, where most of them received their education. In fact, Marcos Jr, who briefly attended Oxford, is known as an “aficionado of British culture”, and his son, Ferdinand “Sandro” Marcos III, is also mostly British-educated.
While Marcos will likely welcome warm economic ties with Beijing, he doesn’t share the incumbent’s wild infatuation with China or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Unlike the Dutertes, who mostly spend their time engaging in provincial politics, the cosmopolitan Marcoses seek and welcome engagement with the West.
Nevertheless, the long-term outlook for Philippine democracy is troubling. The incoming administration will likely oversee, along with allies in the legislature, the introduction of a new constitution, which may defang anti-corruption bodies, weaken institutional checks and balances, and undermine human rights and civil liberties.
The upshot would be not a 20th century-style dictatorship but instead what political scientists dub a “hybrid regime”, like the ones in Hungary or Malaysia, whereby semi-competitive elections legitimise a hegemonic coalition. Absent a concerted pushback by the liberal opposition, the Philippines might only be left with a façade of democracy in a few years’ time.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.