MS Risk Blog

2022 General elections in the Philippines: the return of the Marcos family

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On 9 May general elections were held in the Philippines. In these elections more than 67 million Filipinos chose a president, vice president, 12 senators, 300 lower house legislators, and about 18,000 officials across 7,600 islands. As polling stations closed and the vote count started, data showed a huge early lead for the candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (commonly referred to as Bongbong Marcos (BBM)), son of the late dictator. The second most voted candidate, a Human Rights lawyer of the Liberal party and the current vice-president, Leni Robredo, has fallen behind in the number of votes. This is considered a make-or-break moment for the country: it will be the end of the era of Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial outgoing president who, in addition to his bloody war on drugs, has been a scourge of dissidents, indigenous peoples and the country’s Muslim population. The election of BBM only raises questions about the future of democracy in the country. There are three main factors that explain the return of the Marcoses to power in the Philippines.

First of all, electoral analysts have referred to the concept of authoritarian nostalgia. Marcos’ father ruled the country for two decades (1965-1986), including nine years under a brutal period of martial law, a period that saw disappearances, detentions, killings and torture of people, as well as massive corruption (Marco’s family has been estimated to have stolen up to US$10 billion from public coffers). The Marcos family fled to Hawaii after the 1986 revolution, but since then their human rights’ abuses and kleptocracy have been whitewashed up to today. Some analysts have pointed out that this historical revisionism has been easier in the Philippines because there was no transitional justice during the democratic transition in the late 1980s.

Marcos Jr has presented his campaign in terms of unity and highlighting the promise of reviving a former greatness. The Marcos’ years in power are seen as a golden era when there was social stability, peace, order, a thriving economy and development of infrastructures. The idea of a golden age is especially influential nowadays due to the impact of the pandemic on the poorest. Marcos’ electoral campaign, with the slogan “together we shall rise again” has ironically been seen as a one of the most divisive and polarising political campaigns in the country’s history.  The voters’ decision is however not a unexpected turnaround: it is the verification of the triumph of the anti-political discourse initiated six years ago by Duterte, who has governed with a national-populist message with which he has silenced any criticism of the country’s situation.

Another element that feeds authoritarian nostalgia is the influence of individuals over political parties. For voters in the Philippines, political parties tend to be secondary to personalities, with loyalties shifting easily. This means that the charisma, agenda or reputation of a certain candidate carry an enormous weight. The popularity of Marcos Jr. has also been fuelled by different campaigns on social media. Filipinos spent an average of 10 hours a day on the internet, 4 hours of those consuming social media. This makes the spread of disinformation an effective tool for controlling the public discourse.

The second factor that explains the victory of BBM in the Philippines is thus his successful campaign to control the political discourse on social media. Although the battle to control the popular narrative was fierce, it is the campaign in favor of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos the one that had the most power of public reach and manipulation, according to the experts. Apart from spreading on social media the story of an idyllic Philippines in his father’s time, he has taken advantage of hoaxes that thousands of citizens have believed, such as the one that his family hides a great treasure of gold ingots that they will distribute among the population if he is elected president. On the other hand, the second most popular candidate, Leni Robredo, has been slandered with hoaxes such as an alleged sexual video of her daughter or the insistent message that she is allied with the communist insurgents. To compensate disinformation on social media, Robredo’s supporters launched an unprecedented door-to-door effort that is unusual in such a large scale.

Finally, the spread of disinformation on the internet has also been largely absorbed by the younger generations, including first-time voters. Analysts consider that, even if Marcos Jr. has high levels of popularity among all age groups, young voters have been key in his electoral triumph. Young people do not remember the millions of dollars looted from the public coffers during the term of the Marcos’ dictatorship, as well as the cases of torture and executions. Apart from the age gap that prevents young people from having directly experienced the years of the dictatorship, the educational system has not been able to properly discuss the dictatorship era. Historical revisionism has affected the morals and the political conscience of young people. This gap in public knowledge, especially among younger generations, has been exploited by Marcos Jr’s campaign.

The three factors that explain the return of the Marcos family to power in the Philippines (authoritarian nostalgia, disinformation, and the role of the younger generations) have given rise to concern about the future of democracy in the country. The Philippines, one of the oldest democracies in Asia, has seen with Duterte a turn towards China that could continue with the next president Marcos Jr. The president-elect has asked that he be judged for his actions and not for his family past. Regardless of his words, his actions will definitely be closely monitored by the international community.