How did Marcos Jr, son of an infamous dictator, win the Philippines election?

Presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. speaking at an election rally in Batasan Hills, Quezon City (Photo: patrickroque01/Wikipedia Commons)

In a landslide victory, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., better known as Bong Bong Marcos or simply BBM, is to become the new president of the Philippines in late May. The son and namesake of the infamous dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, managed to get 31 million votes, more than double the amount of his closest rival and current vice-president, Leni Robredo.

This will be the first president to receive a majority of votes (just over 50%) since his father supposedly won with a 53% majority over Corazon Aquino in the highly controversial and disputed election of 1986. The dictator Marcos was then ousted by the masses just a few months from that election in a series of popular demonstrations known as the ‘People’s Power Revolution’.

Alongside today’s President Marcos, Sara Duterte, mayor of Davao city and daughter of the outgoing President, also won a majority of the electoral votes to become vice president. Although touted as a presidential candidate herself in the years leading up to this election, Sara Duterte decided to throw her weight behind Marcos and they successfully captured both the president and VP posts. This is seen as the coming together of two political dynasties with an agenda to establish a powerful control over the politics of the country.

This election result will serve the outgoing president, Rodgrigo Duterte, enabling him to maintain a certain amount of power in the Philippines government. This is crucial for his political survival, as numerous human rights and other organisations are waiting to bring him to the courts and tribunals on charges of the widespread extrajudicial murder of criminals throughout the six years of his presidency.

Rehabilitation of a dictator

By winning the presidential election with a landslide, Bong Bong Marcos has finally fulfilled his long time aim to rehabilitate his late father’s image. BBM has never acknowledged any of his father’s crimes or expressed remorse. The Marcos family has been working quietly for many years to gain back political ground in the Philippines. It has slowly managed to crawl back to power by denying all of their corruption and heinous crimes against humanity. Furthermore, if not for the intervention of Duterte, BBM would not have been able to stand in the election due to an outstanding criminal charge for tax evasion.

Throughout his presidency, Duterte had used the support of the Marcos family, who had political influence in the north of the country, to bolster his power in Congress. In return, Duterte provided the Marcos with political and economic favours to further increase their power. In 2016, the body of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator and known kleptocrat was transferred from a burial site in Hawaii to the Philippines, despite heavy objections by numerous human rights groups. He was buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery of the Heroes) as part of a Marcos rehabilitation campaign.

‘Team Marcos’, using expensive political campaign experts and thousands of online ‘trolls’ and independent bloggers, put over an alternative version of history, where the martial law period under his father’s presidency is pictured as a golden era for the people of the Philippines. Throughout the political campaign, BBM avoided mainstream media organisations and opted to give all his interviews to bloggers. He campaigned almost exclusively on social media platforms, managing to avoid any hard-hitting questions about his father’s legacy and his own plans and policies for the people of the country.

Role of social media

Most mainstream media and politicians opposed to Marcos are blaming social media for the victory of BBM and Sara Duterte. Although they play a big role in elections nowadays, they are not the main cause of the decision made by millions of voters.

Politicians like BBM and Sara are not too dissimilar from Donald Trump or Narenda Modi, in noticing a growing distrust amongst the population with the traditional mass media which is either state-owned or closely linked to the state. People are generally aware of the role of the state media, which continues to manipulate the truth in favour of their political allies. Due to this, more and more people are opting to get their political news from social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are seen as independent, if not totally reliable. Furthermore, in a society with no real democracy, social media is the only way to voice their concerns and grievances.

Having seen this phenomenon all over the world, BBM and Sara decided to focus all of their efforts on social media campaigns. The Philippines population is much more ‘tech savvy’ since the Covid pandemic forced them indoors and to work remotely. Even the older generations were forced to learn to communicate through the internet. This also greatly aided the BBM and Sara campaign.

However, this phenomenon alone cannot explain the victory of Marcos and Sara since their strongest support is in rural areas where technology is not as common as in urban areas. Team Marcos is projected to dominate the less developed and poor regions of Southern Philippines known as Mindanao, except in one city and two provinces. Also, other candidates who invested heavily in social media campaigning, like the presidential runner up, Leni Robredo, and the former actor, Isko Moreno, did not do well.

Alternatives

The successful candidates claimed to have the political will to establish law and order, reduce poverty and wipe out weak and corrupt elites. Although void of any concrete programme, they claimed to have the ‘political will’ that other politicians supposedly lack to deliver on their promises.

Although coming from a political dynasty, Duterte managed to portray himself as an ‘outsider’ from rural Mindanao, capable of disrupting the so-called political elites which have dominated Philippines politics for decades, without any benefit for the majority. Now, by vowing to continue all of Duterte’s economic and political policies, BBM and Sara are following in his footsteps but portray themselves as political ‘outsiders’.

Since the masses overthrew the dictator Marcos in 1986, none of the subsequent presidents or governments has managed to lift the masses out of the miseries of capitalism. Although the revolution brought some democratic political rights and a new constitution, the majority of the masses did not enjoy the fruits of their brave battle against a brutal dictatorship.  Close economic and military ties with the US and other western imperialists meant that the people were subjected to continued exploitation and deprivation.

So-called democratically elected presidents after Marcos, like Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo, were also corrupt and ruled with excessive force. Not only did the people remain poor and exploited, but the Philippines also became less stable. Each subsequent president faced conflicts with rebels from the southern regions and failed to solve the long-standing national question in the south.

Duterte and now Marcos Jr. have managed to capitalise on the disappointment with the so-called liberal democracies. Marcos argued that the people would be better off under a dictator like his father – able to make difficult decisions, not relying on spineless politicians beholden to elites and western imperialists.

None of the other candidates managed to challenge these arguments. Leni Robredo, the second most popular candidate for president and the first choice of the business community, did not have a programme to rally mass support. She concentrated on combating corruption, expanding democracy and improving small and medium businesses, lacking a concrete plan and leaving the big corporations in total dominance over the economy.

Despite changing the colour of her party’s political campaign from the traditional yellow of liberal candidates to dark pink, Leni did not have a programme to address the plight of the working class and the poor. In foreign policy, she favours taking a hard stand against Chinese military expansion in the South China Seas and building closer ties with the US. However, engaging in an international conflict with a global superpower is unpopular. It aided the Marcos campaign to spread rumours that Leni is a puppet of the US.

When it was apparent from polls that BBM and Sara Duterte were on course to win, there was an attempt to form an anti-Marcos coalition with Leni Robredo as the sole candidate for president. However, various political disagreements meant this effort fell through.

Democracy or dictatorship

Candidates like Robredo posed the question, “democracy or dictatorship?” to spread awareness about the dangers of a return to a 1970s-style dictatorship. With inadequate political programmes, they failed to win over the support of the people.

In return, the victor – BBM – claims that democracy in the Philippines has been overrated and used as a tool to plunder the riches of the nation by various interest groups. He doubles down with the idea that an iron fist government, such as his father’s, will be able to deliver economic growth and improve the livelihoods of the population. He further claims that although there was no political democracy during his father’s era, there was infrastructure development and economic growth which greatly benefitted the people.

However, at the beginning of Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency in 1965, there was a period of stable economic growth in the Philippines. This came to a halt in the mid-’70s, at the end of his second term. The economy was bogged down by accumulating debt, government mismanagement, corruption and other problems. Refusing to step down, Marcos imposed martial law and held on to power for 14 more years by force. He was accused of killing and imprisoning thousands of activists and political oppositions and embezzling more than US$10 bn.

In spite of this history, the majority of the country’s population, who are in a desperate situation due to the economic downturn, especially during the pandemic, did not have any valid choices on the ballot. Confronting the question ‘democracy or dictatorship?’ many chose to back a former political outcast and son of a dictator who was, at least, appearing to promise a better future. All they had apart from that was a collection of career politicians shamefully repeating the same arguments and showering the masses with empty promises with no prospect of delivering.

Worsening economic conditions

The Philippines economy took a nosedive in 2020 due to the pandemic when the GDP fell by 9.6%. Despite managing moderate growth since then, the economy is battling with rising inflation, debt and current account deficits. Citing uncertainty in medium-term growth prospects, the Fitch rating agency retained BBB rating for the Philippines economy and a negative outlook in February.

With the conflict in Ukraine raising energy and commodity prices and fuelling continual inflation, and the slowing economic growth in China, the presumptive President BBM does not have a clear way out of the developing economic crises. There is no obvious way to control inflation in order to boost economic recovery. There are also no funds to continue the promised infrastructure projects of Duterte’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ programme.

Although BBM and Sara Duterte got elected by promising economic stability and prosperity, they are practically powerless under the current economic situation to deliver on any of their promises.

Winning 50% of the electoral votes alone does not guarantee a stable government. Like Duterte, President Bong Bong Marcos and Sara are controversial and polarising figures. Amongst the middle classes and some sections of the youth and students, especially from urban areas, they are both seen as kleptocrats. They have used their position in power to engage in repeated human rights violations, including turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of extrajudicial murders committed by President Duterte.

If the new regime is not able to address the current worsening economic condition for the masses in a swift and meaningful way, it will not be long before the poor and the downtrodden start to clamour for change. Historically, the Philippine’s working class and poor have played a massive role in bringing a notoriously violent and repressive dictator to his knees with mass movements and protests. The non-violent nature of the People Power Revolution of 1986 was an inspiration for the Reformasi movement in Indonesia and Malaysia in 1998.

Given that history, it is not impossible to imagine another historic people’s movement developing in the Philippines, with the incoming administration failing to solve the economic crises and trying to use force to silence people’s voices.

History of mistakes

Unfortunately, there is no leadership coming from any of the left parties or trade unions. None of them offers a perspective of building a working class-based mass political organisation with the aim of replacing the rotten capitalist system. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has been involved in perpetual guerrilla warfare with the Philippines state since its inception and has made crucial mistakes throughout its existence. It did not take part in the People Power movement against Ferdinand Marcos. Together with all the left organisations in the Philippines, they opted to completely boycott the 1986 presidential election due to fear of legitimising the Marcos dictatorship, if he won.

However, liberal organisations coalesced behind Corazon Aquino, the wife of the recently gunned down opposition leader. She became the de facto leader of the People Power Movement and was sworn in as the new President.

The years that followed saw continuous repression of left organisations and the propping up of capitalism by all the succeeding presidents. The CPP continued their armed struggle with the state from rural areas and attempted to make several failed peace talks with the government.

In 2016, the leader of the CPP, Jose Sison (living in exile in the Netherlands), unofficially endorsed Duterte for the Presidency, stating that peace talks with a Duterte government were entirely possible. Initially, Duterte used this endorsement to gain more support in the elections and even offered the CPP members cabinet positions. But, after consolidating his power firmly at the helm as president, Duterte issued a proclamation declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), terrorist organisations. Since then, CPP members, supporters and other left groups have been attacked and hunted mercilessly. Red-baiting became a constant feature in Philippines politics.

Alternatives today

In this climate, and in the political vacuum, right-wing leaders such as Duterte and now BMM have been able to win elections and gain power almost unchallenged. In the coming period, as the masses see the fraudulent nature of the new regime, they will be forced to look for an alternative which has a concrete programme for changing society.

Partido Lakas ng Masa is a left political party which is affiliated with the BMP (Solidarity of Filipino Workers) and fielded a well-known labour activist, Leody de Guzman. He is the current chairman of BMP, which is comprised of over 200 workplace trade unions, with a total membership of 100,000 workers. Although withdrawing early due to the low number of votes he received, Leody managed to put forward a programme of higher wages and the abolition of oppressive contract work.

However, Leody failed to address many other areas of concern regarding the ailing economy, growing inequality, lack of job opportunities, international relationships and other issues. His programme also did not clearly illustrate how the electoral promises would be funded and did not bring out the inevitability of challenging the capitalist system and its centres of power in order to bring a meaningful change in society.

With support from a mass workers’ organisation, such as the BMP, Leody and the Partido Lakas ng Masa should be able to build a strong political party based on the need for mass struggle, with a clear perspective. Bold socialist policies, such as a high living wage for all workers, free and quality healthcare and education for all, a public housing programme, a massive increase in public infrastructure and social development funds and so on, should be put forward. In order to fulfil these promises, the party should be committed to campaigning against capitalist class interests. The leadership should also put forward the idea of nationalising all the major industries under the management and democratic control of the working class as one of the main planks of their programme.

Struggle

The working class of the Philippines and Southeast Asia are under extreme pressure from the degrading global economy and are ready to throw themselves into a struggle against the ruling class. Although the pandemic has subsided for the moment, and the economies have mostly re-started, the masses are yet to see any of the promised recoveries. Global supply chain crises, war and a heavy debt-ridden economy, are driving nations from one crisis to another in quick succession, giving the masses no room to breathe and gather their thoughts and actions.

The working class and the oppressed masses of the Philippines are in desperate need of clear leadership to not only lead them to organise their anger into tangible actions, such as a general strike or mass protests. But they also need to take political power from the clutches of the capitalist ruling elites, as the situation develops.

It is clear that there will be no real progress under capitalism and the condition of the masses will continue to deteriorate. Only a socialist society, under the full democratic control of the working class and the people, will be able to bring society out of capitalist crisis and on the path to building a prosperous and peaceful future for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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