The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the Philippines, nostalgia for strongmen trumps democracy

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How does democracy unravel? In recent years, numerous countries have started to offer case studies. Steady state capture of institutions and relentless culture wars by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sparked a slow-rolling political crisis within the European Union. In India, the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist agenda is eroding a democracy long anchored by the country’s religious and ethnic pluralism. And right-wing demagogues in the United States and Brazil have strained the guardrails of their countries’ democratic systems, to varying yet worrying effects.

Then, there’s the Philippines, where the scion of a dictator toppled by epochal mass protests — an uprising which gave the world the phrase “people power” — is now about to surge back into power. On Monday, voters went to the polls to elect a new president and delivered what appeared to be a landslide victory to former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

Marcos family once ousted by uprising wins Philippines vote in landslide

For Marcos, it’s a triumph that brings full circle a journey that began in 1986, when he and his family fled Manila’s Malacañang Palace to life in exile in Hawaii. His father, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, had infamously ruled the country under martial law and looted billions of dollars of state funds. His mother, Imelda, likely used some of that ill-gotten money to amass one of the world’s largest shoe collections. Their time in office was known for its corruption, decadence and repressive cruelty.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the 64-year-old son of the former Philippine dictator, won the country’s presidential election in a landslide on May 9. (Video: Reuters)

But such is the state of the country’s politics — and the fitful struggles of its democracy over the past three decades — that many Filipinos have little problem returning a Marcos to power. Though he did little to distance himself from his father’s despotic legacy, Marcos sauntered to victory with twice as many votes than his nearest rival, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, whose supporters had hoped was entering election day on a wave of grass roots momentum.

How the Philippines’ brutal history is being whitewashed for voters

Marcos will take up the mantle left by the populist, controversial rule of President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, without the option to run for a second term, faces potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court for the bloody drug war unleashed during his term, which has seen thousands of extrajudicial killings. Duterte’s critics say he established an “elected strongman” regime, squeezing the space for dissent and attacking the press, while raging against a hectoring West and courting closer ties to Russia and China.

None of this, though, dented his popularity among a major swath of the Filipino public, which welcomed his tough approach and was also prey to new networks of pro-government online disinformation that spawned during Duterte’s time in office. “In the global war on the truth, the Philippines is especially vulnerable. About 99 percent of its population is online, and over half find it difficult to spot fake news,” wrote my colleagues Regine Cabato and Shibani Mahtani. “Duterte rose to power in 2016 aided by a keyboard army and online hate campaigns, forever changing the online landscape.”

Marcos ran for vice president in 2016, but elections for vice president in the Philippines are separate from that of the president and he was beaten then by Robredo, a social activist and lawyer. Six years later — with troll factories and TikTok influencers on his side — Marcos looks set to become president with Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, as his vice president.

That is sobering reality for those wary of the country’s long history of powerful feudal families running roughshod over its politics. “The fear is that rule by two children of strongmen would reinforce a system of patronage, weaken democratic institutions and emphasize that only a candidate’s last name matters,” my colleagues reported.

Is the Philippines ready for another Duterte?

Some Duterte critics contend that this election is one of the world’s first showcases of the power of online disinformation. “If Marcos wins,” Barry Gutierrez, a spokesperson for the Robredo campaign, told Filipina journalist Sheila Coronel, “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.”

But it’s also a reflection of the failure of the political elites who presided over the country’s democratic transition after Marcos. “Duterte’s election was their rude awakening, his subsequent popularity their long waking nightmare,” Coronel wrote in Foreign Affairs. “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.”

That rude awakening may get ruder with Marcos taking office. He and his late mother returned to the country in the 1990s, managed to evade serious legal consequences for their role in the dictatorship and reentered political life. They used their considerable wealth to help airbrush their family’s image and the legacy of the Marcos dictatorship. And they ultimately capitalized on enduring popular discontent over systemic woes, like corruption and sprawling economic inequity.

“The post-1986 political order in the Philippines was self-consciously framed as one of national revitalization after the dark years of martial law,” noted Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “And yet, within a system built in symbolic opposition to them, the Marcoses have thrived. Their power and wealth have allowed them to rewrite the family’s story as one of persecution and recast the dictatorship as a time of relative peace and prosperity. The passage of time, the failure of the post-Marcos political establishment to deliver for many Filipinos, and of course, the echo chambers of social media, created a ready audience for that historical fiction.”

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