The Marcoses’ new lease on political life
The writer is a Beijing-based journalist and author.
It is misleading, if not mean, for detractors to attribute Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s crushing victory in the Philippine presidential election on May 9 to the uneducated and poor voting for him. Filipino voters are anything but gullible.
Despite Marcos Jr.’s political baggage, adherents willingly took a gamble in the hope that their lot would improve over the next six years under a man whose heart they believe is in the right place. He is perceived to truly care for the have-nots.
Poverty, a widening wealth gap and chronic corruption are still prevalent in the country of 110 million almost four decades after his father, Ferdinand E. Marco, was deposed by a military-backed People Power Revolution.
In a stunning comeback, Marcos Jr. won about 31 million votes (56 percent) in this month’s election, more than double that of his closest rival, outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo (27 percent), according to preliminary results. The final tally will be announced in late May.
This is Philippine populism.
The 1986 People Power Revolution was tantamount to a coup d’etat with Marcos Sr.’s defense secretary and the head of the Philippine Constabulary switching sides and backing the movement. While Marcos Sr. could have ordered loyalists in the army to shoot protesters challenging his victory in that year’s presidential election, he did not lest civil war break out.
So how and why did the son of what most Philippine and Western media call a “dictator” and “kleptocrat” pull off what was once unimaginable?
Some political pundits ascribed Marcos Jr.’s landslide to his forging strategic alliances with other powerful political families. According to surveys, Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, would have been a shoo-in for the presidency, but settled for the vice presidency on a joint ticket. Former presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada also cast their lot with Marcos Jr.
The opposition’s failure to field a single candidate split the vote. Critics cried foul and blamed it on disinformation on social media and a decades-long concerted campaign to whitewash the family’s past. Marcos Jr.’s campaign was well-oiled, but accusations of widespread vote-buying do not hold water.
In a statement after it became clear he had decisively won, Marcos Jr. told the world: “Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions,” ostensibly to allay fears that he would be like his father who has been accused of stealing billions of dollars, widespread human rights abuses and crony capitalism.
The Marcoses have proven themselves amazingly resilient. During more than five years in exile, they did not wallow in self-pity and were neither complacent nor defeatist.
The whole world came crashing down around the Marcoses after the patriarch’s ouster. It is difficult for outsiders to imagine what they went through in exile - distress, despair, derision and demonization by the media. Marcos Sr. died in exile in Hawaii in 1989 and his family returned home two years later to face criminal charges.
Not everyone deserves or gets a second chance in life. Those given a new lease on life should count their blessings and cherish what is very likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The first time the Marcoses were given a second chance was in October 1940 when the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence meted out by a provincial court and acquitted Marcos Sr., then a 23-year-old law student, of the premeditated murder of his father’s political rival in their hometown of Ilocos Norte five years earlier.
One day after the rival routed Marcos’ father Mariano in a local election in 1935, the former’s supporters celebrated by parading a coffin on top a vehicle, stopping in front of the Marcoses’ home, honking horns and chanting “(Mariano) Marcos is dead”. In its verdict, the Supreme Court described the act as “provocative and humiliating”.
While behind bars, Marcos Sr. finished his studies at the prestigious University of the Philippines, topped the national bar exam and penned his own defense before the nation’s highest court. He became a decorated World War II hero, albeit this was disputed by detractors decades later. He married a beauty queen and went on to become the 10th president of the Philippines after stints in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Marcos Sr. ruled the country for about two decades - nine years of that under martial law in the face of a communist insurgency, a separatist Muslim rebellion in the south and a series of bombings in Manila.
When Marcos Sr. suspended civil rights in 1972, the Philippines’ former colonial master did not stop him because the United States was mired in the Vietnam War and needed its naval and air force bases - Subic and Clark - in the Philippines. Both bases closed in 1991.
Now, Marcos Jr. has been given a second chance to redeem the family’s reputation. The 64-year-old has vowed to bridge the divide between all Filipinos – the first step in the right direction as national reconciliation is needed for the country to be reborn and regain its former glory.
For starters, the President-in-waiting could try to mend fences with the Jesuits who openly rooted for Robredo and Jose Maria Sison, the exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, to end the longest communist rebellion in Asia.
He could try to turn enemies into friends by naming as advisers the best and brightest who lost in senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial elections or at the very least hear them out.
It would be unnecessary and unwise for Marcos Jr. to rename venues and infrastructure, including Manila’s international airport, that were named after Benigno Aquino Jr, Marcos Sr.’s nemesis who was assassinated upon returning to the Philippines from exile in 1983. Aquino’s widow, Cory, assumed the presidency in 1986, while his son and namesake was elected president in 2010.
For fatalists, everything happens for a reason — Marcos Jr.’s victory is the family and the Philippines’ destiny. For Catholics, it was the will of a God who works in mysterious ways.
The past is important, but the future is moreso. To give Marcos Jr. the benefit of the doubt is to give the Philippines a second chance.