how the Marcos clan could be returning to power

The upcoming elections in the Philippines present the country with a tough choice to set its political course for the next six years. Outgoing authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte leaves behind a country badly damaged by his time in office.

The economic decline, a brutal “war on drugs” -for which he faces an investigation by the International Criminal Court- and the mismanagement of COVID have set the bar low for his successor.

All this is useful for the favorite of the May 9 elections: Bongbong Marcos, son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86). Bongbong leads the polls by a considerable margin and has done so for months. This is despite a rather dismissive attitude towards the electorate in his campaign. He has avoided interviews, not shown up for debates with other candidates and has even avoided contact with the public after a bizarre incident in which he claimed an injury but had the wrong wrist bandaged.

Bongbong relies on two forces to get him to the presidential palace, neither of which is new or his doing, but the old ways may be enough for him.



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The first is a political system still based on patronage. Presidents and vice presidents are chosen in separate ballots, but each candidate sits in a pyramid of others running for positions in the political hierarchy, from senators, governors, and mayors to the most local of representatives: the barangay captain. There are more than 42,000 barangays (small administrative districts) in the Philippines, and most captains will negotiate support for a presidential candidate and carry the votes of their village with them.

The second is the mark of the Marcos family and its uncanny ability to survive decades of scandal. Their alliances between the elite and other clans run deep in the Philippines. Bongbong’s notable endorsement comes from a gallery of former rebel presidents. Former movie actor Joseph Estrada, president from 1998 to 2001, was forced to resign following charges of corruption and impeachment. Gloria Arroyo (president from 2001 to 2010), who pardoned Estrada, had her prosecuted for looting 369m pesos (£5.6m) under the Duterte administration. As part of her political rehabilitation, she spearheaded her administration’s attempts to lower the age of criminal responsibility to nine. Yes, nine years old.

The only campaign issue Bongbong seems to be interested in is defending those under investigation on charges of stealing 183 million Philippine pesos (£2.8 million), in particular Estrada’s son, Jinggoy. The legacy of covering up for the ultimate crony seems to be the playbook here with Sara Duterte allied with Bongbong in her quest to become vice president to carry on her father’s political legacy and shield him from any potential liability for his time in office. .

Thousands of Leni Robredo supporters attend a rally in Malolos, Bulacan, less than a week before the Philippines national elections.
sippa/Alamy

Marcos and his friends get away with it through concerted efforts to police online criticism and are effective in disinformation campaigns. They also rely on the tried and tested method of vote buying. A practice that Duterte defended in his own midterm elections.

The only realistic alternative to business as usual comes in the form of Leni Robredo, who is a distant second in the polls. She is the sitting vice president and a thorn in Duterte’s liberal side, though vice presidents wield little power. Robredo’s campaign has seen large crowds at rallies across the country and suggests that grassroots support and momentum can be mobilized.

Robredo has found the support of prominent Philippine media personalities, many aware that the media crackdown under Duterte could continue under Marcos. Similarly, Robredo has found support from local NGOs and this may bypass some of the traditional dynastic power structures in the Philippines.

Robredo has a mountain to climb – according to polls – which are far from reliable in the Philippines. Overthrowing decades of institutional and cultural political practice on May 9 would be a truly enormous achievement. Especially since the last days of electoral campaigns are usually the most violent.

Election violence in the Philippines is a perennial problem. My research, published in the journal Pacific Affairs, shows that the phenomenon is getting worse. Government measures, including a ban on weapons and the use of police checkpoints, have been unsuccessful.

On Monday, the Philippine National Police acknowledged 52 reported incidents of election-related violence. Hotspots have been identified across the country that will be heavily guarded, including Cebu, the country’s second largest city. The threat of election-related violence is most pronounced for candidates, activists, and journalists.

On April 19, presidential candidate Leody de Guzmán was shot in an apparent assassination attempt. The specter of violence during the last weekend of the campaign and as the results are confirmed is very real. In 2009, 58 people, including 32 journalists covering an election event, were killed and buried by the roadside when their convoy was attacked by the local Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao, part of the autonomous region of Mindanao.

It is this kind of recent past, along with those that still bear the scars of Ferdinand Marcos’ years of torture (estimated by Amnesty International and others at 3,257 dead, 35,000 tortured and 70,000 imprisoned), which means that a wrong electoral choice could have very serious consequences. consequences for the other Philippine democratic institutions.

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