Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. holding a rally in Manila, April 2022
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. holding a rally in Manila, April 2022
Lisa Marie David / Reuters

Ferdinand Marcos, the strongman who ruled the Philippines with an iron grip for two decades, may have died over 30 years ago, but his ghost haunts the Philippine presidential election that is slated to take place on May 9. Marcos, whose regime was characterized by fraud, corruption, and political repression, was ousted from power by a popular revolt in 1986 and later died in exile in Hawaii. This year, however, his son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., a 64-year-old former senator, is the leading contender for the Philippine presidency.

Marcos’s campaign has resurrected memories of his deposed dictator father and revived the trappings of his rule—the anthem of his New Society party, the red shirts that were once his signature attire, the stirring speeches delivered with hands slicing the air. Marcos’s success on the campaign trail, despite his family’s brutal political legacy, is a testament to their decades-long project of image rehabilitation. To his followers, Marcos is not the inheritor of an illegitimate regime but the archetype of “the long-exiled prince extracting justice for his unjustly deposed, murdered father and winning back his rightful throne,” as the columnist Rigoberto Tiglao wrote in The Manila Times. And Marcos is not the only candidate to emerge from a powerful political dynasty in the 2022 race; his running mate is Sara Duterte, the mayor of the southern city of Davao and the daughter of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte.

The rise of the strongmen’s children reveals more than their parents’ enduring hold on the Philippine political imagination; it reflects the failure of the country’s transition to democracy after Marcos’s fall. The nascent democratic system that formed after 1986 had all the features of a real democracy—a liberal constitution, competitive elections, a free press, and vibrant civil society—but it concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few families and mired millions of others in misery. Once ensconced in office, rent-seeking families blocked reform and reduced democratic politics to a contest among clans. Corruption, rising inequality, and intractable poverty fueled frustration with democratic gridlock. Today, political dynasties dominate local government posts and make up two-thirds of the Philippine Congress. Now they hope to capture the country’s two highest offices. Although the elder Marcos is long dead, the struggle between democracy and autocracy in the Philippines is far from over—and the upcoming election could determine the country’s path for decades to come.

DICTATORIAL DÉJÀ VU

For many Filipinos, the May 9 election could be the most consequential race since Marcos’s ouster, marking an important crossroads in the country’s quest for democracy. His son’s main competitor is the current vice president, Maria Leonor Robredo, a low-key former public interest lawyer whose campaign has energized the same middle-class, pro-democracy constituency that deposed Marcos decades ago. The raw energy of Robredo’s movement, which is focused on mobilizing grassroots support, stands in stark contrast to the machine and money politics that have traditionally decided Philippine elections. In the past few weeks alone, Robredo’s volunteer-driven campaign has filled town plazas and stadiums with record crowds and mobilized thousands in door-to-door canvassing drives. To her followers, Robredo’s campaign seems to offer a glimpse of the participatory democracy that they envision for their country. As the sociologist and columnist Randy David has observed, Robredo is perceived by many as “the most important steward of the emancipatory spirit that, in 1986, freed the country from the grip of authoritarianism.”

In other words, the upcoming election is more than a contest between opposing candidates. According to the political scientist Ronald Holmes, who has conducted opinion polls in the country for the past 30 years, it is “a referendum on the political system after the [democratic] transition.” And the outcome won’t simply gauge the extent to which Marcos has been rehabilitated. It will, in Holmes’s view, “determine whether we continue backsliding and remain an electoral autocracy or whether we can secure transitional justice and stall any further erosion of democratic institutions.”

Philippine democracy has been under siege for the past several years, much to the chagrin of those who fought to unseat Marcos and restore democracy in the 1980s. Like their counterparts around the world, Philippine democrats were once secure in the belief that history was on their side. After all, they were the heirs to the People Power Revolution, the three-day uprising during which citizens armed with prayers and flowers protested against the Marcos regime and ultimately forced the dictator from power. But in 2016, when Duterte was elected president, the Philippines became one of a growing number of hybrid regimes around the world in which elected strongmen have clamped down on dissent, muzzled the press, and channeled popular frustration with democracy into rage against the so-called other—minorities, migrants, and, under Duterte, drug addicts and criminals.

Marcos’s campaign has resurrected memories of his deposed dictator father and revived the trappings of his rule.

Marcos is an ally of Rodrigo Duterte’s and often speaks of the mythic golden age of his father’s rule. Sara Duterte is a politician cast in her father’s mold: she once punched a sheriff in the face when he refused to delay the demolition of a slum. Like her father, she prefers the iron fist to the velvet glove. Together, she and Marcos have united two of the country’s most powerful political dynasties in a quest to control the Philippine political system.

To Filipinos invested in democracy, the rise of the strongmen’s children—and their emergence as the frontrunners in this year’s race—has been unnerving. Duterte’s election was their rude awakening, his subsequent popularity their long waking nightmare. Even worse, pro-democracy Filipinos had lost the moral high ground: their antidemocratic adversary was democratically elected and inspired widespread support from the country’s poor and middle classes. Duterte delighted in ridiculing their pearl-clutching moralizing about democracy and human rights, and many Filipinos saw them as effete, elitist, and pathetically out of touch.

Duterte’s brand of populist politics has proved immensely popular throughout the Philippines; he will leave office with a 67 percent approval rating, nearly 40 points higher than that of Robredo. Many Filipinos rallied to Duterte because he promised a way forward. He railed against the elite and the imperial United States, striking chords that had long resonated with the public. He didn’t reform dynastic politics or clean up government, but he promised safety and stability for ordinary Filipinos. He steered the public’s focus to crime and offered a swift solution—“Kill all the drug lords”—as a panacea for the country’s troubles. His rhetoric was so persuasive and he himself so popular that the liberal opposition was savaged in the 2019 midterm elections: for the first time in 80 years, not a single opposition candidate was elected to the Senate. Having revived strongman rule, Duterte is now passing the baton to his daughter and the son of a dictator he admires.

TILTING THE NEW PLAYING FIELD

Marcos and Duterte have capitalized on their fathers’ allure, money, and dense political networks. Together, they make a formidable duo. Just last year, each was individually polling in the 15-to-25-percent range, but running in tandem has bolstered their chances. By March of this year, they were each polling at 56 percent. Marcos brings the votes of his father’s bailiwick in the Ilocano-speaking region of northern Luzon to the ticket, while Duterte will likely deliver votes from the Visayan-speaking southern part of the country.

These captured votes are simply politics as usual in the Philippines, where regional and linguistic loyalties swing elections. But the outsized influence of social media disinformation has set this year’s election apart. Over the years, the Marcos and Duterte political machines have built industrial-scale social media operations and deployed them to such great effect that the opposition camp appears less concerned with on-the-ground campaigning than with resolving a perceived asymmetry in the information war. “If Marcos wins,” said Barry Gutierrez, a spokesperson for the Robredo campaign, “then it will be a triumph of the disinformation politics pioneered by the Duterte campaign in 2016 and taken to a new level by the hyperactive, well-funded social media machinery of the Marcos camp.”

Rodrigo Duterte’s shrewd use of social media has changed the calculus of Philippine political campaigns, and his techniques are now being replicated by the professionals running Marcos’ and Sara Duterte’s online campaigns. During his tenure as president, Duterte has hired bloggers and social media influencers to propagate his message and spew vitriol against his critics. He also kneecapped Manila’s critical press, suing journalists, denying a franchise to the largest independent TV network, and threatening to launch tax and other investigations of critical media proprietors. This assault on the traditional media landscape of the Philippines has helped the Marcos dynasty to worm its way back into the country’s political life by peddling alternative narratives glorifying the Marcos era that have taken hold among younger, Internet-savvy generations.

HISTORICAL FICTIONS

With Marcos’s rise as the 2022 presidential frontrunner, his family is reaping the benefits of their long game to reclaim power and status in the Philippines. In 1986, they fled the country onboard U.S. Army helicopters, toting diaper boxes crammed with cash and jewels that, along with money stashed in foreign bank accounts, funded their lives abroad. When Marcos died in exile in Honolulu in 1989, Filipinos had good reason to think that the Marcos era was over.

But in 1991, the dictator’s widow, Imelda Marcos, was allowed back to the Philippines, where she faced 60 criminal and civil charges, including graft and tax evasion. These charges did not quash her political aspirations: in 1992, she tested the political waters by running for president. She won only ten percent of the vote—with the memory of the dictatorship still fresh, the Marcoses remained political pariahs.

But not for long. Philippine political elites eventually succumbed to the Marcoses’ money and clout, paving the way for the family’s political rehabilitation. Weak institutions failed to hold the Marcoses to account. While the cases against them languished in the country’s compromised courts, members of the family sought public office, using each election to rebuild their local and national base. In 1995, Imelda won a congressional seat in Leyte, her home province. Starting in 1998, both Marcos and his sister Imee were elected multiple times as governors and congressional representatives of their father’s native province of Ilocos Norte. In 2010, Marcos was elected to the Senate, and in 2016, he came close to being vice president.

The rise of the strongmen’s children reflects the failure of the country’s transition to democracy.

All the while, the Marcos family was erasing and rewriting history, reaching out especially to younger voters who had no memory of the dictatorship, and whose textbooks—mostly unchanged since the 1980s—still extolled the elder Marcos and his vision of a New Society, which he declared would end poverty and inequality in the Philippines. An alternative narrative—that of the Marcos era as an age of progress and prosperity—took on new life, going viral on platforms such as YouTube that are popular among young people who could access them for free on their phones. These videos glamorized the Marcos family and elided any mention of the corruption or human rights abuses that were rampant throughout the dictator’s rule.

The Marcos family has invested heavily in digitally remaking history to influence the present. As The Washington Post recently reported, Marcos-funded call centers staffed by well-paid digital operatives churn out glitzy versions of the golden age narrative and heap vitriol on critics. Paid influencers and micro-influencers propagated these lies. Robredo, who won the vice-presidency over Marcos in 2016, was the target of what the scholar Jonathan Corpus Ong has called “digital black ops” that portrayed her as a bumbling, inexperienced lightweight, handicapping her campaign even before it started.

Now, the Robredo campaign is working to reverse the disinformation wave by connecting with voters in person. Door-to-door campaigning, however, takes time and resources—and with just days to go before the elections take place, time is not on the opposition’s side. There is nonetheless a sense among the voters and organizers who have mobilized for Robredo’s campaign that this is an existential election.

DEMOCRACY UP FOR GRABS

Philippine democracy is a 36-year-old experiment. It has been stress-tested before, most notably in the late 1980s, when ambitious military officers mounted a series of failed coups against Marcos’s successor, Corazon Aquino. It survived, and since then, the military has stayed in the barracks. But democracy in the Philippines still faces tremendous challenges: even though electoral politics flourished in the aftermath of the military’s fruitless bids for power, it has since been captured by rent-seeking elites who are impervious to reform. The Marcos-Duterte duo personifies this dynastic system, and will seek to preserve it using the strongman tactics of their fathers and the algorithmic manipulation of public sentiment on social media.

Can the momentum and energy—and the army of door-to-door volunteers—of Robredo’s campaign be harnessed to shore up Philippine democracy even if she loses? Or will it dissipate, especially since the ruling political dynasties have captured the social media space, as they have so many other elements of Philippine public life? Regardless of what happens in this election, it will take generations to consolidate Philippine democracy. And as the voters preparing to head to the polls well know, the elites who have thrived in this broken system cannot be entrusted to repair it.

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  • SHEILA S. CORONEL is Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.
  • More By Sheila S. Coronel