“We’re surprised that we’re back in style,” gushed Filipino Senator Imee Marcos, referring to her brother’s emergence as the prohibitive frontrunner to become the country’s next president. “My brother has been working quietly all these years. But the truth is we’ve been out of fashion for such a long time,” she added, feigning surprise and humility amid an embarrassment of riches.
Almost all authoritative surveys show that the sole son of the former Filipino dictator is cornering close to half of total prospective votes just months before the 2022 elections. This unprecedented lead is particularly crucial, since the Philippines has a bizarrely frugal single-round, first-past-the-post system. All Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. need to do to become the next president is to simply get more votes than half a dozen other candidates.
Currently, Marcos is likely to get more votes than all his top rivals combined. But this is not an ordinary election, and the implications for the Philippines’ besieged democracy are profound. Contrary to Imee Marcos’ claim, the Marcos clan hasn’t been “out of fashion.” In fact, the former overlords of the Philippines is on the brink of carrying off one of the most successful “counterrevolutions” that the post-colonial world has ever seen.
This is about nothing short of a revitalized ancien régime eviscerating the legacy of the 1986 “People Power” revolution, which toppled the kleptocratic Marcos dictatorship. If current trend lines hold, former First Lady Imelda Marcos will be back in the Malacañang presidential palace almost exactly 50 years after her husband declared Martial Law in the Philippines.
And the populist incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte, who controversially reburied the remains of the former dictator in the Cemetery of National Heroes in 2016, will likely go down in history as the ultimate curtain-raiser for the Marcoses. The question is: How did we get here? How did the Philippines, Asia’s oldest democracy, transform into a den of authoritarian nostalgia and strongman populism?
In Philippine politics, anything can happen. Historically, the country’s presidential elections have been extremely unpredictable, given the wild swings in voter preference, uber-dramatic campaigns, and 11th hour curveballs, which have sunk former frontrunners. From Fidel Ramos (1992) to Duterte (2016), eventual victors were often initial “dark horses.”
But the prospective victory of Marcos, who is enjoying the largest lead by any frontrunner in Philippine history, would be unsurprising. From the French Revolution to the 1848 revolutions in Europe, history has shown us how remnants of the old regime can simply wait out the first waves of revolutionary passions and, subsequently, mobilize nostalgia and brute force to regain power.
From post-Pinochet Chile to post-Suharto Indonesia, partisans of the old regime have also managed to claw their way back to power, often coming close to even winning the office of the presidency. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, has unabashedly glorified the days of military dictatorship, while appointing top generals to key government positions.
In the Philippines, it has taken the Marcoses almost three decades to chart their way back to the pinnacle of power. Since their return from temporary exile in 1991, the powerful dynasty has consolidated its base across the so-called “Solid North,” the northernmost, generally prosperous Ilocano-speaking provinces of the Philippines, where Marcos Sr. hailed from. This were also the regions that enjoyed preferential treatment, including massive public infrastructure projects, during the Marcos dictatorship.
From their base in the north, the Marcoses gradually rebuilt their nationwide network of support, building vital alliances with other centers of power, including the Duterte dynasty from the southern island of Mindanao. But the mind-boggling restoration of the Marcoses was far from inevitable.
After the overthrow of the Marcos regime, the new revolutionary government, led by then President Corazon “Cory” Aquino, faced a historic opportunity to introduce radical reforms in a deeply corrupt, impoverished, and unequal society.
Instead, the new democratic regime, now facing countless coups and nationwide instability, opted to muddle through, shunning radical legislation to ensure accountability and social justice. The upshot was the proliferation of political dynasties as well as the rehabilitation of corrupt officials and compromised judges from the deposed regime.
This had two major consequences, one short-term and the other more long-term. Just four years after the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution, the Marcoses were back in the country, relishing their impunity with gusto.
Astonishingly, Imelda Marcos and her husband’s top crony, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, was allowed to stand for the presidency in the 1992 elections. Had they joined forces, the Marcos regime could have been back in power three decades earlier.
Despite his conviction on tax evasion-related charges, Marcos Jr. has been allowed to run for multiple offices, thus becoming a governor, congressman, and senator over the years. He lost the vice presidential race in 2016 by razor-thin margins. Imelda Marcos, who has also been convicted on criminal charges, has been roaming free and is still eligible to run for office.
Meanwhile, judicial impunity has gone hand in hand with a deficient basic education program, which largely whitewashes the horrors of Martial Law. The advent of social media, meanwhile, saw the proliferation of networks of disinformation, which have glorified the Marcos dictatorship as a supposed “golden era.”
The shortcomings of the post-Marcos democratic regime also had nefarious long-term consequences, as with the extreme levels of inequality that have fueled “democracy fatigue” among a growing number of voters.
To put things into context, political dynasties have managed to dominate more than 80 percent of elected legislative offices in the Philippines. Meanwhile, even at the height of economic growth in the 2010s, the 40 richest business families in the country gobbled up 76 percent of newly-created growth.
These extreme levels of inequality largely explain why, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, almost half of Filipinos said that “most elected officials do not care” about ordinary citizens. Unsurprisingly, one authoritative survey showed that only 15 percent of Filipinos are fully committed to liberal democratic politics, while a majority have expressed an openness to authoritarian leaders who have no regard for institutional checks and balances.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo has allowed the Marcoses to present themselves as the ultimate alternative to a broken system. But Marcos Jr.’s massive surge wouldn’t have been possible had he not built a vital alliance with presidential daughter Sara Duterte, who, despite leading in previous surveys, decided to not run for the presidency. As a result, Marcos managed to absorb much of her base, including the vast majority of voters among the “Solid South” in Mindanao.
Thus, Marcos went from a distant third, with only 13 percent of prospective votes six months ago, to as much as 53 percent in December following Sara’s withdrawal from the presidential race. Moreover, had the deeply divided opposition unified around a single charismatic leader, they would have managed to put up a more competitive fight. Instead, all of the top opposition candidates decided to run against each other.
Should Marcos win this election decisively, there would be immense implications for Philippine democracy. Mild-mannered and urbane, Marcos, who briefly attended Oxford, could come off as a much-needed break from the cuss-laden, stream-of-consciousness rhetoric of the ageing incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte.
But the ex-dictator’s son possesses more stamina and strategy to radically alter the Philippines’ political system, including through constitutional change, should he win the elections with massive margins. His prospective presidency will be the culmination of a decades-long counterrevolution by one of the most notorious political dynasties in Asia.