An all too familiar threat to democracy in the Philippines
(Not so) Democratic History
Democracy in the Philippines was nothing more than an ideal for the vast majority of the country’s history. Under colonial rule first by the Spanish and then by the Americans, there was little opportunity for the people to choose their leadership or govern as they pleased. Nevertheless, after earning their independence in 1946, the transition to democratic governance was far from guaranteed. The post-World War II era brought a series of corrupt leaders still largely supported by American resources.
In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos rose to power. His political success was largely predicated on claims that he was the “most decorated war hero in the Philippines” despite the fact that United States Army documents show little to no support for such ideas. Marcos led an authoritarian regime, even declaring martial law from 1972 to 1981. During this time, Marcos assumed extraordinary powers, silencing his opposition and engaging in rampant corruption. After orchestrating massive fraud in the 1986 election and losing supporters amidst economic stagnation, Marcos was effectively deposed and fled to Hawaii where he remained until his death.
Marcos’ successor, Corazon Aquino, made strides to revitalize democratic institutions, and with each subsequent transfer of power, Filipino leaders continued to advance democratic agendas. Meanwhile, evidence emerged that the Marcos family and their close associates had embezzled billions of dollars from the Philippine economy. Marcos and his wife were indicted by the U.S. government on racketeering charges, but Marcos’ wife Imelda was later acquitted and allow to return to the Philippines.
Modern Times, Modern Voters
Suffice it to say, Ferdinand Marcos is far from the Philippine’s most popular leader. Oddly enough however, that title seems to belong to his son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
Elections for the Philippine president and vice president are slated for May 9, 2022. By law, the executive is limited to a single term, and there are a total of eight presidential hopefuls vying for his seat. Still, recent opinions polls show Marcos carrying a staggering lead as high as 20 points ahead of even his closest competitor.
Marcos’ success is bolstered by his running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. She has a strong backing in the south where the Marcos family historically lacked support and brings hope for the continuance of her father’s democratic values. Nevertheless, in the Philippines, president and vice president are elected separately, so Sara Duterte-Carpio cannot alone explain what some critics have called “collective national amnesia.”
Since returning from exile in the 1990s, the Marcos have been working diligently to restore power and glory to their family name. Imelda, Bongbong’s mother, was elected to Congress for a total of four terms. Meanwhile, Bongbong and his sister Imee both won senatorial elections after serving as a governors and congresspeople in the northern Ilocos Norte province.
While the return of the Marcos family to the presidential palace is distressing to many, over half of the country’s voters are now age 40 and under, making them too young to have experienced the earlier Marcos regime. Bongbong Marcos is capitalizing on this fact, continuing to speak highly of his father and declining to comment on any backlash. Adept at social media, Bongbong is running a modern campaign for a young voting demographic.
Emphasizing the lavish infrastructure projects his father invested in, Bongbong has promised his people an increase in unity and prosperity. Yet many remain unconvinced that Bongbong will behave any differently than his despot father. There remains record of 75,000 cases of torture, illegal detention, and disappearances from the original Marcos regime, and only $3.41 billion of the near $10 billion dollars the Marcos family embezzled has ever been recovered.
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Democratic Erosion
Consistent with most scholars’ understanding of modern democratic erosion, this is a story of legal, democratic-presenting means to potentially undemocratic ends.
By all indications, popular opinions polls have not been directly tampered with, and Marcos is mounting a legitimate bid for presidential election. Even after losing his 2016 vice presidential race to Leni Robredo, now his closest presidential opponent, Marcos continues to work within the existing system to rise to power.
Still, if Lust and Waldner were correct in asserting that democratic procedures require uncertainty in election outcomes, impermanence of governments, and constitutional constraints on the government’s treatment of its citizens, there is valid concern for democratic backsliding here. Ferdinand Marcos Sr. used martial law to stay in power long past constitutional limits, and his treatment of citizens, especially those who opposed him, left much to be desired.
Even if we offer Bongbong the benefit of the doubt regarding his supposedly democratic ambitions, there remains legitimate concern that his election would threaten the notion of impermanent governments. Considering his outward praise for his father as well as his public intentions of restoring power and glory to the family name, many view his leadership as yet another unjust continuation of the Marcos’ autocratic regime.
Moreover, it is difficult to separate these two generations of Marcos men as they both rely heavily on campaigns of lies and misinformation. While his father claimed unfounded heroism in World War II, Bongbong claims that his father’s legacy has been terribly slandered and misrepresented by mainstream media.
In January 2022, Twitter announced that it had suspended hundreds of accounts and hashtags promoting Marcos’ campaign that were deemed to be in violation of guidelines intended to reduce spam and manipulation. Many of these were suspected bots aimed at denying the rampant human rights violations of the 1970s and 1980s and exaggerating Marcos’ achievements.
Fact checking organizations report that Marcos is the “top beneficiary” of disinformation, and Twitter’s move to suspend a few hundred supportive accounts is not likely to bear much effect on Marcos’ popularity. Afterall, with the rapid advancement of modern technology, it is often difficult to identify bots and to prevent “manufacture[d] consensus” after people have experienced continuous and targeted exposure.
Hence, if the old guard in the Philippines is right to suspect that Bongbong will bring nothing but a return to his father’s authoritarian ways, then they right to do what they can to prevent his election. Many are putting pressure on the Commission on Elections to disqualify him for previous tax convictions. Others are simply trying to rally volunteers behind opposing candidates such as current vice president Leni Robredo.
Only time will tell the future of democracy in the Philippines. Ultimately, voters will cast their ballots for the candidate that they support most, and Winston Churchill’s famous words will once again be tested as history is poised to repeat itself in a society facing mounting barriers to learning anything from it.