Why a “Dictatorship Nostalgia” Now in the Philippines?
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. won the May 2022 presidential election landslide in the Philippines. He is the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who imposed martial law in 1972 and was exiled by the People Power Revolution in 1986. The Marcos family had been sued for ill-gotten wealth, unpaid taxes, and human rights violations. Nevertheless, Marcos Jr. got 58.8 percent of the votes, the highest and the first majority share after the democratization, gaining more than double Leni Robredo’s votes. In the vice presidential election, Marcos Jr.’s running mate Sara Duterte garnered 61.5 percent of the votes, although her father, former president Rodrigo Duterte, had been accused of thousands of extra-judicial killings in his “war on drugs.”
Most of the coverage attributes Marcos Jr.’s win to “dictatorship nostalgia” by voters disillusioned with post-democratization politics and manipulation by fake news that spread across social media. But these factors are not enough to fully grasp the worldview of the Marcoses’ supporters. Why did Filipinos, who once stood up to attain democracy, elect a dictator’s son for president? Why did so many Filipinos seek hope in the past dictatorship era despite the streak of high economic growth since the mid-2000s? This article will explore changes in the Philippine society that lie behind this election result.
“Here Comes the Son”
The new president was born in 1957 and studied at prestigious schools in the U.K. and the U.S. with abundant allowances. Despite his claim of earning a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Oxford University, he did not complete the degree. After returning to the Philippines, he was appointed the Vice Governor of Ilocos Norte at 23, then the Governor at 26, by his father, the president. But with the Philippines’ democratization in 1986, the family fled into exile in Hawaii. After returning in 1991, he served as a Congressman, Governor, and Senator. Although he lost against Robredo in the 2016 vice presidential election, he beat the same rival in the 2022 presidential election.
Yet, his track record as a politician is not impressive. Although he listed wind farm construction and several legislations as his achievements, he was attacked for having no practical involvement in them. During the election campaign, he presented no specific policies or programs and continued to skip major debates. At speeches, he just clenched his fists and endlessly repeated the hollow slogans of magkaisa (unity), tulungan (mutual aid), and pagmamahal (affection).
From “People Power” to the “Golden Age of Marcos” Narrative
Behind Marcos Jr.’s electoral victory is the drastic shift in the dominant discourse for political legitimacy. The post-democratization politics had been morally anchored by the “People Power” narrative that emphasizes reflection on the autocratic era, patriotism like the assassinated former senator Benigno Aquino Jr., liberal democratic system and values, and civic participation. The main advocates of the discourse were the liberal citizens and the traditional elites, such as the Aquino and López families. The two forces came to forge a strange alliance by sharing the experience of sufferings under the dictatorship and struggle for democracy.
Whereas, in the rural areas and depressed communities, many people had said, “Prices were lower, and society had more discipline during Marcos’s time.” Yet, such talk was only among families and friends and had no place in a formal public sphere. From around 2014, however, the “golden age of Marcos” narrative that exaggerated the infrastructure and other achievements under martial law began spreading across social media.
According to this narrative, hypocritical elites, such as the Aquinos, have abused the democratic system to enhance their interests while talking honeyed words. To save the people oppressed by their rule, Marcos Sr. rose to the presidency through his hard work and competence and developed the nation. The people followed him with discipline to generate order in society. The hypocritical elites and those deceived by them, however, expelled Marcos Sr., who died in exile with a stained reputation. Thus, the Philippines has returned to the dark age. But now, the scion of the tragic hero Marcos has risen again to save the Filipinos—so the story goes.
This traces the narrative of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection, which is familiar to many Filipinos. In the past, the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. was likened to the martyrdom of Christ and led to democratization. The then-demonized Marcos family is now a savior, with the good and evil roles reversed.
Even so, the Marcos clan, the most powerful political dynasty in their home province of Ilocos Norte, is a part of the existing system, rather than reformers. While the traditional elites accumulated wealth and power by land-owning and sugar export to the U.S. under American colonial rule, the Marcoses and the Dutertes rose to political power in the post-World War II period through higher education and legal qualification as a lawyer. The “golden age of Marcos” narrative projects a mere rivalry between the different elite factions as if it were a battle between reformers and vested interests.
Social Media as the Main Battlefield
Such a worldview took root due to changes in the public sphere. First, the widespread use of social media democratized the discursive arena, and the voices of previously marginalized people spilled out and gained legitimacy. Liberal intellectuals could no longer monopolize intellectual and moral initiative.
Second, since around the mid-2010s, “troll companies” that manipulate public opinion with disinformation have been active behind the scenes. These companies, run by people from the advertising industry, collaborate with influencers and fake account users to generate and spread information advantageous to their client politicians. In the 2022 election, they spread postings that ingeniously mixed truth with fiction to deny the Marcos clan’s ill-gotten wealth, exaggerate their achievements, and degrade their political rivals.
Third, the news media’s rigorous fact-checking failed to curb manipulation by disinformation because the trolls spread information determining the media institutions as biased. Rappler, a media company headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, was particularly targeted as it had engaged in investigative journalism and criticized the Marcoses. Rappler reporters openly posting anti-Marcos views on their personal accounts also gave the impression Rappler’s fact-checking was partisan.
Marcos himself highlighted a heartwarming family life on his YouTube channel and whitewashed the image of the Marcoses, demonized by the “People Power” narrative. He claimed nothing but “unity,” avoided criticizing other candidates, and emphasized a “harmless and kind Marcos” image with a smiley face. To criticisms of the Marcos family, he responded with a baffled smile. The more he was criticized, the more his supporters believed the accusers as “hypocritical and arrogant” and became sympathetic towards Marcos. Not a few of Robredo’s supporters scorned Marcos’ supporters as “stupid voters manipulated by disinformation” while declaring themselves to be moral citizens advocating democracy, which only made Marcos’ supporters all the more devoted.
Filipinos of the New Era
For those who fought the past democratization struggle with their life, the “golden age of Marcos” narrative is utterly absurd historical revisionism. Then who resonated with this story? The most distinct factor is the region. In the exit poll, Marcos gained much more votes in the northern region where he is from, and in the southern region, the Duterte family’s electoral turf. Yet, to understand his landslide victory, we also need to consider the expansion beyond these regions.
As far as I have observed, pro-Marcos tendencies are strong among the offspring of the low-income class that has yearned for the “good old days of Marcos.” According to Pulse Asia’s pre-election survey, Marcos was the first choice over Robredo in all classes and generations. Yet, the starkest difference was among the Millennials, and classes D and E, the lower end of the five socio-economic classes. Given that more than half of the voters were aged 18 to 40, with 80 percent in class D, support for Marcos from the class-D young generation was crucial.
They are the Filipinos of the new era that came of age during the economic growth period that began in the mid-2000s. Opportunity for higher education has become more common for them with financial support from family members working abroad. They have experienced upward social mobility to a certain extent through jobs related to the global service industry. Popular jobs are migrant professional workers such as nurses and seafarers, while jobs as call center agents provide them with a relatively higher salary in the Philippines. But they still fall short of the middle-class status that earns over 15 USD a day, because of the concentration of employment in the low-end service sector.
The emerging majority has also been at the mercy of neoliberalism. They are demanded to enhance their values as disciplined and docile “human resources” matching up with global demands and standards in the precarious and stressful labor market. As “hospitable” Filipinos, many engage in “emotional labor,” caring for customers or employers, suppressing their emotions under an asymmetric power balance. The migrant workers often encounter serious human rights violations. Neoliberalism offers the dream of self-attained success but instead, drives people into inequality and precarity while attributing their hardship to themselves in the name of self-responsibility.
It is their daily labor, remittance, consumption, and “self-sacrifice” (sakripisyo), that have driven the Philippines’ economic growth since the democratization. Meanwhile, instead of fostering domestic industries, the state was earnest as a broker, sending people out to the global labor market, enticing them to be the “new heroes” (bagong bayani).
The Longing for a “Strong State”
The Filipinos of the new era believe their efforts have been frustrated by the corrupt system of the country in which traditional elites held vested interests. They came to think that the Philippines needed a strong leader who would disrupt the system and discipline the people with patriarchal tough-love, rather than liberal democracy or human rights.
During the 2016 election, people were more confident in self-reliant economic success, and believed it was enough if Duterte punished the criminals that got in their way and eliminated elite rule. But in 2022, amid the stress from neoliberal works and the economic slowdown from the COVID pandemic, many people were attracted to the “golden age of Marcos” narrative that presented a “strong state” as an ideal they could entrust themselves to. It is no wonder those who had been fatigued from the neoliberal work regime envisioned a safe refuge in the former developmental dictatorship.
These election results show a fundamental change in Philippine politics. Since the colonial period, landed local elites with access to global resources and markets have exploited the nation-state for their particularistic interests. The “weak state” corroded by the elites’ interests was incapable of realizing the rule of law in society and implementing systematic welfare policies. Under serious inequities and poverty, most people were bound to clientelism by the elites’ individual resource distribution.
However, as people accessing the global labor market drastically increased and local clientelism loosened, national aspirations for a strong state and public welfare began to determine the presidential election. As if in response, the Duterte administration developed the welfare system, including free higher education, pay rise for teachers, soldiers, and police officers, establishment of the Department of Migration Workers (DMW), and universal healthcare insurance. The Marcos administration is also stating agriculture promotion and enhanced healthcare and welfare.
Yet, a strong leader based on the rule of men undermines the rule of law and does not always create a strong state that cares about the people. To be subject to welfare, people must satisfy a moral condition arbitrarily set by the powerful leader. During the Duterte administration, tens of thousands of drug suspects and left-wing activists have been extrajudicially killed as undisciplined hardheaded (pasaway) unworthy of rescue.
Robredo Camp’s Wrong Assumption
Marcos’ main contender, vice president Leni Robredo is the widow of Jesse Robredo, who earned a reputation as a leading reform-oriented mayor in Naga City, and died in a plane crash when he was the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government in the Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III administration. As a human rights lawyer, she has provided legal services to women and marginalized people. In her announcement of her presidential bid, she likened the situation under Duterte’s regime to a family suffering abuse from the patriarch. She presented herself as the mother, summoning up the courage to stand up to protect the children after years of enduring abuse.
With “Uplift Lives” (Angat Buhay) as her slogan, she proposed concrete social-economic programs for vulnerable sectors of society. Using the rice porridge (lugaw) offered at her campaign rally as the symbol, she presented herself as a friend of the masses. But her supporters were mostly economically stable middle class, who appreciated her morality and accountability.
The Robredo camp probably considered class D as the “poor class,” from whom they could draw support through anti-poverty measures, but many in the class had somehow improved their lives through self-help for the last 20 years. Therefore, they were unimpressed by the Robredo camp’s anti-poverty measures and lugaw. Worse, some of them felt their efforts were underestimated. Instead, picturing their hopes and dreams through Marcos’ empty words and fantasies on social media must have been much more fun and filled with possibilities for them.
The Outlook for the Marcos Administration
Contrary to supporter expectations, the new administration’s future seemed not so bright, considering that the Marcos family’s prime concern must be coming back to power and restoring the family’s honor. At least in the first five months of his presidency, however, the narrow-minded ambition of “reviving the father’s legacy” seems to have worked not bad.
Like his father, President Marcos Jr. appointed many proven technocrats as cabinet members, with special regard to the economic ministers. Individual requests from collaborating politicians were repressed to some degree. Initially, the son of former president Arroyo demanded the energy secretary post, and Vice President Sara Duterte wanted the concurrent post of the defense minister. Yet, seasoned experts took up both positions.
In the State of the Nation Address delivered in July 2022, President Marcos stressed fiscal health restoration, tax reform and enhanced collection, counter-inflation measures, agriculture modernization, and education and next-generation industries linked with information technology. Also, speaking in Tagalog, he promised welfare and care for children, women, single parents, and migrant workers. Yet, he never referred to the issues of human rights and corruption.
With the appointment of a career diplomat as the foreign affairs secretary, the diplomatic policy will be more stable than during the previous administration. While Marcos claims independent foreign policy, unlike the previous president, he does not interfere in diplomacy and respects the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Defense, which are generally pro-America.
The immediate issue is to ease rising prices caused by the global hike in energy and food prices. If he fails to handle this, he risks disenchanting the people who believe in the “golden age of Marcos” story. There are also concerns in infrastructure development. As a result of the previous administration’s ballooning foreign debt and stalled Chinese loans coming to light, state-led infrastructure development is no longer possible. The key is how well the administration can manage the public-private-partnership (PPP) program that failed during the Benigno Aquino III (Noynoy) administration.
Between the Marcoses and the Dutertes, there must be an agreement that Sara will run in the 2028 presidential election and Marcos’ eldest son, congressman Sandro, will run in 2034. If this goes as planned, the two families will have a monopoly over the Philippines’ presidency from 2016 to 2040. But if a great scandal erupts in the Marcos administration, Sara may break away and create political fluidity.
This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 73 (May/Jun. 2022) of Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine and revised in November 2022.
Wataru Kusaka is a Professor at the Graduate School of Global Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He specializes in Philippine studies with an ethnographic approach. His publications include Moral Politics in the Philippines: Inequality, Democracy and the Urban Poor (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2017), “Bandit Grabbed the State: Duterte’s Moral Politics,” Philippine Sociological Review 65: 49-75, 2017.