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11 May 2022

The Marcos dynasty returns to power in the Philippines

What the election of the late dictator’s son means for the country's future, and the regional balance of power.

By Katie Stallard

Update: Ferdinand Marcos Jr won a decisive victory in the presidential election on 9 May with 58.9 per cent of the popular vote, according to unofficial results. Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of the current leader, Rodrigo Duterte, is expected to become vice president after winning 61.2 per cent of votes cast in a separate election. The official results are expected by the end of May.

The last time a Ferdinand Marcos was president of the Philippines, he declared martial law, presided over a decades-long dictatorship, and stole an estimated $10bn of the country’s wealth. He was finally ousted by a popular uprising in 1986, fleeing Manila with his family for Hawaii, where a US Customs officer later testified they arrived with 24 gold bars, crates full of cash, and millions of pounds’ worth of jewellery. The thousands of pairs of shoes that were found in the first lady Imelda Marcos’s bedroom when protesters stormed the presidential palace became synonymous with the excesses of the family’s rule.

Yet 36 years later the dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, looks likely to become the country’s next president as polls predict a landslide victory in the election on 9 May. The younger Marcos, who is 64, has served as a congressman and senator, and has spent many years trying to clear the family name. On the campaign trail, he reimagined his father’s corrupt and repressive rule as a “golden era” of stability and economic growth for the Philippines (in fact Marcos Sr plunged the country into the worst recession in its history). He has dismissed the allegations against his family as “fake news” and praised his father as a “political genius”.

His election would not only mark the return of the Marcos dynasty to power, but could also undermine efforts to hold the family to account for its crimes. As president, Bongbong Marcos would have significance influence over the agency that was established to investigate money and assets that were stolen during his father’s rule. It is entirely possible that his mother, Imelda Marcos, who is now 92 years old and appealing against her own convictions, could take up residence again in the presidential palace, although she will find that her infamous shoe collection has long since been handed over to a museum.

Marcos Jr, who has himself been convicted of tax evasion, was 28 when the family fled the presidential compound in Manila by helicopter. His father died in 1989, and Marcos Jr returned to the Philippines with his mother in 1991, winning election to congress the following year then the Senate in 2010. He ran unsuccessfully for vice-president in 2016 but the family’s prospects continued to improve during the tenure of Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial outgoing president, who has been accused of presiding over a campaign of extrajudicial killings under the auspices of his “war on drugs”. (The Philippine constitution limits presidents to a single term in office, so Duterte could not legally run again.) The first Marcos was re-buried with military honours in Manila’s “Cemetery of Heroes” in 2016 on Duterte’s orders. Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is expected to become Marcos’s vice-president in a separate vote, bringing the two political dynasties to power.

Beyond rehabilitating their respective families’ reputations, and perhaps helping to shield them from prosecution, the details of how Marcos and Duterte-Carpio will govern are less than clear. Their campaign slogan was “Unity”, with the pair reportedly referring to themselves as the “Uniteam”, but Marcos has failed to provide detailed policy plans, relying instead on direct appeals to voters on social media and cultivating nostalgia for the country’s authoritarian past. Marcos has been accused of presiding over a “pandemic of disinformation” in the Philippines, with a network of TikTok, YouTube and Facebook influencers amplifying his dubious claims and smearing his opponents.

[See also: Sri Lanka on the brink]

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One early beneficiary of a Marcos victory could be China, which is widely viewed as favouring the dictator’s son over his opponent, Leni Robredo. Beijing and Manila are engaged in a territorial dispute over their rival claims in the South China Sea, with the Philippines winning a legal case at an international tribunal in 2016, which China refuses to recognise. Marcos, however, made a point of meeting China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, during his campaign and has called for the two countries to resolve their dispute between themselves. For his part, Huang has praised Marcos and declared that “together, we are opening a brighter future”.

Duterte talked tough on China during his own election campaign in 2016, once promising to ride a jet ski out into the South China Sea to defend his country’s claims. But he subsequently softened his approach, courting the Chinese government in search of development aid and trade deals. In 2020 he threatened to end the agreement that allows the United States to use a naval base in the Philippines, but subsequently backed down, opting instead to maintain relationships with both powers, while trying to extract benefits from both. If Marcos now shifts that balance towards Beijing, this would represent a significant setback for Washington, which regards Manila as an important regional ally in its intensifying strategic rivalry with China.

Such a move would be politically fraught for Marcos at home, however, and he may well find himself constrained by the same force that ultimately ousted his father: people power. Political analysts in the Philippines have warned that the public wants to see the new president take a tougher line on China than his predecessor, and that in the coming months popular unrest could take hold in the country once again as Marcos’s rivals contest the dynasty’s return.

[See also: How the world’s dictator’s are rewriting the past in order to control the future]

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