Philippines' Marcos Scion Coasting Toward Presidency
The question is why
On February 26, 1986, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and 90 members of his entourage including his wife Imelda and his children famously boarded a US Air Force C-141 transport, fleeing the country for Hawaii with well over a million people on the streets of Manila demanding their ouster.
Among those children was Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., now 64, who along with the rest of the family has staged one of Asia’s most astonishing turnarounds and is now heavily favored – with caveats – to reclaim the presidency his late father ruined before he fled. Improbably, the family has for 35 years largely evaded attempts by the Philippine government to get back the billions believed to have been stolen and instead have resumed political careers almost without a hitch.
The family is unrepentant. In a 2015 interview with a morning television show quoted by Bloomberg, Bongbong was quoted as saying: “What am I to say sorry about? Will I say sorry for the agricultural policy that brought us to self-sufficiency in rice? Will I say sorry for the power generation? Will I say sorry for the highest literacy rate in Asia? What am I to say sorry about?”
Both power generation and rice self-sufficiency, of course, ended up suffering in the later years of the Marcos reign and the school system is a mess. The country now is perennially one of the biggest purchasers of foreign rice in Asia while Thailand and Vietnam – despite the latter being ravaged by 20 years of war – are among the biggest exporters.
The Philippines was also plagued with brownouts until Fidel Ramos became president in 1992 and began to privatize the energy sector. Early attention to infrastructure development had become bogged down in heavy debt incurred by cronies, with some projects never turned on including a still-shuttered nuclear plant as the family turned over the sinews of the country to shadow and dummy ownership of major corporations which they couldn’t legally own. Imelda Marcos, the matriarch, complained later that her family owned most of corporate Philippines but couldn’t recover it. Swiss bank accounts overflowed with money stolen from the Philippine people.
Bongbong’s apparent single policy ambition is to salvage his father’s legacy – or at least his view of it as a golden era, which is at deep odds from reality, since during his father’s reign billions of dollars disappeared, 3,200 people were murdered according to human rights activists, 70,000 were imprisoned and the country slid economically toward the bottom in Asia by 1986.
Marcos has revealed little about his presidential ambitions.
His presidential platform seems to consist of being a Marcos, failing to join briefings with other candidates at major forums of Philippine and foreign business chambers. He skipped a three-hour debate with four other candidates on January 22, saying the host was biased against him, which spawned the Twitter hashtag #Marcosduwag (#Marcoscoward), then held his own solo interview with Boy Abunda, a television talk show host who pitched him what can only be described as softball questions.
It is uncertain what kind of president he would make if he gets there, as the enormous lead he has in the polls gives him the prerogative of not revealing anything that could curdle his welcome by the voters. An attempt by IBON, a Manila-based think tank, to round up candidates’ platforms ended up leaving his blank.
Social Weather Stations and Asia Pulse, the two most-respected domestic polling organizations, in December put his voter approval ratings at or over 50 percent, with Vice President Leni Robredo a distant second at 20 percent and three other candidates trailing below 10 percent each. Marcos has actually been increasing his lead in the vote-rich National Capital Region (NCR) and the central Visayas island group since campaigning began.
Although Robredo narrowly bested him in the 2016 vice presidential race, his organizational capability and command of social media since then will make a repeat of that defeat more challenging. As Duterte has done, the Marcoses have deployed an army of social media allies not only to obscure the family’s misdeeds but to deliver a constant barrage of positive information on their attributes through Twitter, YouTube and Tiktok, although last week Twitter took down 300 Marcos-linked sites for allegedly being engaged in platform manipulation and spam activities.
It should also be noted that there can be uncertainties in Philippine presidential politics. Developer and senior politician Manny Villar appeared unassailable in early 2010 only to lose badly to Benigno S. Aquino III as sympathy built for Aquino on the death of his revered mother the former president Corazon Aquino in October 2009. Jejomar Binay, the former Makati mayor, faded to a distant third when Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte came from nowhere after the official start of the campaign, allowing little time for voters to get to know him well and preaching a scorched-earth campaign against drug users and dealers. Marcos is similarly avoiding situations where his lack of knowledge would trip him up.
At that, according to a source with longtime familiarity with local government, his government, if he is elected, is likely to follow the path set by Noynoy Aquino and Duterte, despite their radically differing rhetoric. That means an expansionary fiscal policy, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, set by a professionally run central bank. The past decade and more in which Philippine growth has outpaced the rest of Asia is a testament to a technocracy that has paid attention to governing. But the miles of slums that disfigure Manila are testament to how far behind the rest of the world the Philippines is.
The contracting process, cleaned up by Aquino, is likely to remain relatively rational although this is after all the Philippines. No one seems able to identify a stable of cronies for Bongbong of the caliber that wrecked his father’s regime. Most of those are dead or have left the scene. Sara Duterte, his running mate, is expected to take a substantial role in both Cabinet picks and governing, which Bongbong doesn’t appear to have a lot of time for. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the cronies won’t appear.
Bongbong to say the least is a leaden campaigner with a family record that could cut both ways. He has produced little to inspire confidence and has had a deeply mediocre career despite 42 years in politics. He is privately disparaged by Duterte fils, who has publicly hinted Marcos is a cocaine user. He left Oxford with dismal grades and a “special diploma” of the kind received by the children of the rich and dictators who pay steep tuition. Becoming vice governor of the northern state of Ilocos Norte, he actually spent much of his term at the Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, although he didn’t finish there – only amending his resume to reflect his diminished academic record once the press got onto him. Quotes have appeared in which his own father, in his diary, called him a “wayward, indolent, lazy son.”
According to a 1986 story by United Press International, Bongbong was appointed chairman of the board of Philcomsat, the national telecommunications satellite company, and drew a monthly salary ranging from US$9,700 to US$97,000 “but rarely visited the office and apparently had no duties there.”
He was convicted of tax evasion in 1995 although the decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals in 1997. However, the appellate court convicted him for his failure to file income tax returns from 1982 to 1985 and ordered him to pay taxes due with interest and a fine of PHP2,000 per count of non-filing, which he has never done, which could in another country disqualify him from running for the presidency. Seven petitions have been filed against his candidacy but they are unlikely to derail it.
So how has this happened? As Bongbong’s 66-year-old sister Imee, who now serves in the Senate after a stint as Ilocos Norte governor from 2010 to 2019 and as a congresswoman from 1998 to 2007, told the local media, the millennials have simply moved on.
That is at least partly because the People Power revolution of 1986 was largely an urban phenomenon. Marcos’s popularity continued outside of Northern Luzon and other areas. Also, the country simply seemed to lack the will to prosecute the Marcos administration despite complicity in a wide range of misdoings.
Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino II, who was murdered when he attempted to return from exile to run against Marcos and later was elected president in her own right, “was simply afraid of bringing Marcos home to face the music,” said a source who was present at the time in 1986. “The US was asked to help get him out of the country and it did so. It might have been different if he had been blocked from escaping. Marcos died in Honolulu. His body was taken to Batac and remained there until its burial at Heroes cemetery early in Duterte’s reign. He should have been arrested in Manila in a show of strength.”
In addition, the reforms to build stronger political and economic inclusion in the post-Marcos era are still quite uneven and the last three decades since the dictatorship have exposed lingering governance challenges, according to Ron Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government.
“The pandemic notwithstanding, the Philippine economy today is far stronger than the Marcos era economy considered the ‘sick man of Asia,’ Mendoza said in an email. “Yet persistent economic inequality and lingering poverty and joblessness exacerbated by the pandemic underscore a lack of economic inclusion. Even if the economy today is better compared to the Marcos years, most Filipinos probably can’t tell the difference.”
Finally, school texts are universally regarded as obscuring the history of the dictatorship. In one textbook, according to Marites Vitug, an author and steadfast Marcos critic, the bulk of an 18-page entry on the implementation of martial law is devoted to the positive effects, with only two and a half pages on the savage repression that followed. “This is what our past governments have neglected, helping shape the history curriculum of our schools,” she wrote. “History, after all, should live in us.”
History may do but it is a history skewed toward nostalgia and not reality. “Basically it is another big family taking the reins,” said a longtime observer of the Philippines. “There is no morality or loyalty in the oligarchy. It is just about keeping the system going and making money. The feudal aristocracy is fundamentally amoral. But this feudal core is what gave birth to the (communist) New People’s Army.”
It is Bongbong’s election to lose.