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The Children of Strongmen
Monday’s election put the Philippines on a grim path. But there may yet be sparks of hope.
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by Nicole Curato
The world once looked to the Philippines for inspiration. In 1986, a mass uprising forced the dictator Ferdinand Marcos out of power without a single shot fired. “Your peaceful People Power Revolution was an inspiration to us for our own revolution,” Czech President Václav Havel said in a visit to the Philippines, cementing the country’s image as a beacon of democracy against tyranny.
Thirty-six years later, the Philippines decided to take a different path. On Monday May 9, it elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the late dictator, as seventeenth president of the republic. Sara Duterte, the daughter of the current president, strongman Rodrigo Duterte, was elected vice president. They won by a landslide, receiving over double the votes of their nearest rivals, according to preliminary results.
It is a formidable combination. In their final campaign rally, a spoken word artist described them as the “children of legends.” Supporters of the elder Marcos and Duterte celebrate their infrastructure legacies—the bridges, hospitals, airports, and expressways they built—and their iron-fisted rule that restored peace and order in the country. That these strongmen had thousands killed, detained, and tortured for the sake of “peace and order” was erased from this narrative. Also whitewashed are the billions of dollars the Marcoses and their cronies looted from the nation. Nevertheless, their supporters hope—and their opponents fear—that Marcos Jr and Sara Duterte will continue the legacies of their larger-than-life fathers.
What happens next to the Philippines? Is it game over for one of Asia’s oldest democracies? I spent the past few weeks closely observing the Marcos-Duterte campaign, and I see two possibilities.
The first is that the 2022 election represents the successful mainstreaming of authoritarianism in a formally democratic state. This may unfold in three ways.
First, the institutions of liberal democracy will continue to be eroded. The Senate is now packed with Marcos-Duterte allies, with only one senator from the opposition, and will likely maintain a friendly, rather than a critical, relationship with the executive. Observers speculate that Marcos Jr will achieve what the outgoing Rodrigo Duterte wanted but failed to do—rewrite the Constitution, which was introduced in 1987 after the Marcoses were forced out of power. It has provisions on term limits and strong checks and balances specifically to avoid another president abusing executive power. Rewriting it could potentially allow Marcos Jr—who has vowed to continue Duterte’s legacy—to remain in power for a very long time.
Second, Marcos Jr will tighten his grip on the economy. Crony capitalism went into overdrive during his father’s regime, with the dictator’s friends and relatives landing sweetheart deals that made them rich while keeping the rest of the population poor. The state of the economy was exemplified by the “nutribun,” a bread fortified with nutrients distributed to school children with a glass of milk. I hear stories from Marcos supporters who grew up during the dictatorship and who identify “nutribun” as one of their best memories of martial law. But they neglect to mention that it was rolled out by the USAID in order to combat severe malnutrition in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the country was suffering from economic mismanagement, marked by a debt-driven economy and corrupt state-run monopolies. There is a real possibility that old and new cronies will once again take hold of the Philippine economy, just as ordinary Filipinos struggle to recover from the pandemic.
Finally, the public sphere will become increasingly corrupted. Throughout the campaign, Marcos Jr refused to answer questions from journalists, but made himself accessible to bloggers and online celebrities who portrayed his family in a positive light. Armies of trolls systematically promoted his campaign and denigrated his rivals. The only debate he took part in was hosted by a television network that endorsed his candidacy, and is owned by a pastor on the FBI’s most wanted list for sex trafficking. Disinformation about the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth circulated on TikTok; critics were tagged as communists and drug lords, effectively opening the way for government task forces and the police to conduct surveillance operations against them.
Marcos Jr may not pack his cabinet with military officers like his father did. He may not impose a nationwide curfew or censor mainstream media. He doesn’t have to. His governance style relies on seemingly mundane but nevertheless despotic practices that constrain opposition voices and evade accountability—all while maintaining the support of many Filipinos who firmly believe that the presidency is part of Marcos Jr’s destiny.
There is, however, another way for this story to end. The ninety-day campaign marked the flourishing of a hyper-enthusiastic volunteer-driven campaign that pushed back against Marcos Jr and the future he represents.
Current vice president Leni Robredo, while a distant second in the polls, has sparked a national movement calling for good governance. In her volunteer headquarters in Quezon City, I met first-time voters who spent their summer organizing campaign materials, choreographing flash mobs in shopping malls, and amplifying fact checks on Facebook. I met aging millennials who embraced the discomfort of leaving their echo chamber on social media and went door-knocking in unfamiliar communities. I met baby boomers who were part of the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the middle of a pandemic and throughout the campaign, came together in a series of rallies all over the country. They were not only asserting their resistance to the Marcos-Duterte alliance: they were making a case for a participatory form of politics where people are heard, and leaders listen.
I dropped by again the day after the election, and there was no indication that the headquarters will be vacated soon. The space is as vibrant as ever. Volunteers were taking shifts delivering snacks to poll watchers. Students and young professionals were deliberating how to transform the volunteer-driven campaign into a lasting political movement.
These encounters, among others, revealed an attempt by ordinary citizens to craft alternative political spaces outside government echo chambers. As the world watches what Marcos Jr does with his power, it is equally important to watch how an intergenerational, multi-sectoral political opposition imagines a different future.
If there is one lesson worth remembering from Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s dictatorship, it is that as power gets concentrated in the center, resistance grows in the margins.
Nicole Curato is the author of the prize-winning book Democracy in a Time of Misery: From Spectacular Tragedy to Deliberative Action and editor of the Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency. She is a Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Canberra. She tweets @NicoleCurato.