The world is witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon in the Philippines where, 30 years after his family was forced to flee the country amid charges of astonishing corruption, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. now 58, is the leading candidate to become the country’s vice president in elections scheduled for May 9.
The Marcos family resurrection – with matriarch Imelda serving in the House of Representatives, daughter Imee governor of Ilocos Norte Province and Bongbong himself in the Senate – should leave observers scratching their heads, because a week ago the Philippines celebrated the 30th anniversary of the People Power revolution that drove the Marcos family onto US helicopters and headed them for Hawaii.
Today, the young have conjured up a bizarre vision of an idyllic life under Marcos, seemingly because during the early years of martial law, things got done. But there is incontrovertible evidence that the family largely wrecked the country and left it 30 years behind the other nations of Southeast Asia that have raised millions of people out of lives of poverty.
In 1972, with his political future threatened by political unrest, he declared martial law and threw hundreds into prison. In 1983, someone – no one knows for sure who – gunned down Benigno S. Aquino II, the father of the current president, at the Manila airport as he returned from exile in the US to try and supplant Marcos. The family is estimated to have stolen as much as US$10 billion.
Marcos is said to have fabricated a story that he was the Philippines’ most decorated hero in World War II. Bongbong has proven he is a chip off the old block, having been proven to have fabricated his BA degree in philosophy and economics. Oxford University told the news site Rappler that he did not complete his degree but instead was awarded a “special diploma" in social studies in 1978, a nicety passed on by universities to the sons of satraps.
So how is it these people may get back in power?
“Rather than celebrating 30 years free of tyranny, many in the Philippines last week debated whether or not life was better under martial law,” according to a subscription-only analysis of the Marcos family phenomenon by the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments. “Young people born after the EDSA revolution, and consumed by the everyday inconveniences of traffic, broken commuter trains, petty crime, and endless political bickering, talked fondly of stories they had heard of the peace and prosperity of the martial law years.
Bongbong Marcos, according to the analysis, has fueled the discussion by offering a vision of the future of the Philippines that does not overtly embrace his father’s tattered legacy, but rather focuses on the broad themes that the younger generation say they liked about the Marcos era. He talks of a disciplined government that would replace the current messy and inefficient one, one that would “solve problems, build big infrastructure and restore international respect to the Philippines. These are the same themes that Marcos loyalists hit upon when discussing his father.”
Marcos is tied to an almost certainly losing presidential candidate, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who consistently ranks in the single digits in surveys. But given the 1987 constitution, presidents and vice presidents are not tied to each other, as they are in the United States and other countries. Thus, even though Santiago is expected to be trampled by the other candidates, he conceivably could end up as the anointed candidate, a springboard to the presidency in the 2022 term, when he will be a relatively young 63.
“Marcos campaign insiders say Bongbong and his family would relish a presidential win by Jejomar Binay,” according to the report. Binay, who himself has been charged with massive corruption during his period as Makati mayor, was a human rights attorney who won the Makati post by being loyal to Corazon Aquino and helping to overthrow Marcos.
“But times have changed and today Binay’s ferocious opposition to all things related to the current Aquino administration puts him in alignment with Bongbong Marcos,” the analysis notes.
Such good friends
The report suggests Bongbong fits well with the other presidential candidates, including the gun-toting Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, and with Grace Poe, with whom he has developed a close relationship in the senate, according to those close to his campaign.
If President Aquino’s candidate Manuel A. Roxas were to win, Bongbong would presumably be put on a boat and sailed off the end of the earth, or wherever political exile is. Their fathers were bitter rivals also.
“No matter who wins the presidency, Bongbong Marcos will be well-placed for the next presidential election if he can win the vice presidency this time,” the analysis notes. “As Jejomar Binay brilliantly illustrated, the term of a vice president can be effectively devoted – almost entirely – to campaigning for president. Quietly, and without competition or the burden of leadership, a vice president can travel the country and the world to meet with Filipino voters and steadily build constituencies.”
The Marcos family’s gradual, decades-long rehabilitation of their patriarch’s legacy is no small achievement. But his acolytes note that in the late 1960s, Manila had a soaring crime rate. A corrupt national police department that was focused on protecting the regime and its associates did little to stop daring daylight robberies and home invasions, as long as the victims were not aligned with the government.
When martial law was imposed, the analysis notes, the police and the military mobilized against street demonstrations and other political dissent with the side of effect of making urban areas more orderly. The increased security presence stopped audacious violent crime and instilled discipline on the militarized roadways (though it did little to stop the protests).
“Marcos loyalists like to focus on these initial months of order rather than the ensuing years of arbitrary detentions, use of torture and summary executions by police, and other atrocities. Much of the same can be said of the economy under Marcos. Economists who study his economic policies have found much to be admired."
He did initiate major infrastructure projects, loosening the IMF’s grip on the economy, promoting “green revolution” policies that briefly helped the country become a rice exporter. These are often cited by loyalists as his achievements.
“The problem was that they were policies in name only. Marcos was the master of declaring thoughtful policies that garnered international acclaim, and then systematically gutting them through the use of executive orders that benefited his family and their associates,” the report notes. “Most notably, he focused the economy on 11 areas. This included commodities, such as coconut oil, and extractive industries such as copper and aluminum. This was a disastrous decision. These were primarily capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive industries that would have created and distributed wealth to the poor, who would have been converted into consumers who drove the economy.
Meanwhile the rest of ASEAN embarked on low-cost, export-oriented manufacturing that employed millions and turned the children of peasant farmers into a vibrant middle class. In the Philippines, a downtrodden and unemployed population went overseas to look for work, creating a diaspora numbering more than 10 million. That diaspora now sends home billions in remittances.
“Strangely enough, this cruel trend is one of the greatest achievements of Marcos. By gutting the economy, he inadvertently created a remittance revenue stream that today is the envy of many other countries.”
Mine, mine , mine
Marcos oriented all institutions toward serving his administration. The result was that when he was ousted, the technocrats and bureaucrats that were needed to hold the country together had been gone for years, in exile overseas. Corrupt and incompetent officials who held the levers of government power due to their loyalty to Marcos were left to run the country. Many of these officials or their sons and daughters remain in place today.
“It is not clear in today’s political environment that another Marcos dictatorship would be possible, even if Bongbong Marcos were to be elected president. With a rising middle class empowered by social media activism, and a younger generation born with the notion that they are entitled to democracy, an authoritarian clampdown would be much more difficult. The Philippines, like most countries in the world, is most likely destined to operate with the messy, chaotic economy of a democracy,” the PSA report said.