His father was a brutal dictator who ruled with an iron fist, while his mother Imelda’s notorious shoe collection became a meme for corruption. In 1986 they were ousted in a popular, globally lauded, nonviolent uprising, but now the son is back in power.
In the annals of Cold War history, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos stands out as one of the most notorious autocrats of the developing world. His 14-year dictatorship, which ended with the 1986 People Power revolution, was marked by brutal violence, massive corruption, and economic mismanagement. Despite this sordid past, however, the Marcos family has achieved an incredible feat: a return to the apex of power.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting in the May 9 Philippine presidential elections, Marcos’ son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, appears to be headed for a landslide victory. The unofficial count shows Marcos Jr, known as Bongbong, with 58 percent of votes. Trailing him with 30 percent is Leni Robredo, the incumbent vice president, who is a former human rights lawyer. This would be the widest electoral margin for a presidential candidate since the Philippines transitioned to democracy in 1986.
The election has also been marred by extensive problems with vote counting machines and allegations of vote rigging. But irregularities at the polls are unlikely to affect the overall results, which are consistent with pre-election surveys. Nonetheless, anger at these irregularities has already spurred protests in front of the offices of the Commission on Elections.
As a former governor, congressman, and senator, Bongbong Marcos’ record is very thin. But what has fueled his winning campaign is a forceful strategy of misinformation and historical whitewashing. Historical amnesia in the Philippines has thus helped propel an otherwise lackluster candidate.
Under Marcos Jr’s father, security forces carried out extrajudicial executions of more than 3,250 people. They tortured 34,000 and imprisoned 70,000 people. The Marcos family plundered some U.S. $10 billion from the country, of which only U.S. $3.3 billion has been recovered.
Devastated by the Marcos family’s corruption, the economy tanked in the 1980s. Negative growth rates, massive debt, runaway inflation, and rising unemployment increased hardships for Filipinos. The sinking economy helped fuel the mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers to all corners of the world.
This weight of history did not, however, weaken Bongbong Marcos’ claim to the presidency. On the contrary, the historical past of his father has been celebrated as a badge of pride for the son, and for the nation. In this political stupor, dictators are nostalgically remembered as strong leaders, historical facts are purposely manipulated, and the past is perceived to be glorious when compared to the present.
President Rodrigo Duterte has contributed to the country’s misremembering of its past. An ally of the Marcoses, Duterte allowed the former dictator’s family a long-standing demand: burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the National Heroes’ Cemetery. Symbolically, this helped shroud the elder Marcos with the aura of a presidency distinguished by great achievements.
Duterte’s widespread popularity has also fed a desire for the politics of strongmen. Just as Ferdinand Marcos ruled with an iron first, so Duterte has similarly shown a penchant for heavy-handed leadership. His style of governance has been characterized by relentless attacks on his critics, including the jailing of former Liberal Party Senator Leila de Lima; the dismissal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno; and the hounding of journalist Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler media, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Bongbong Marcos inherits this vision of progress through discipline because his father is now being remembered as a powerful strongman, and because he enlisted Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of the president and mayor of Davao, as his running-mate. While President Duterte flirted with running for vice-president—he is constitutionally ineligible for reelection – he also curtly dismissed Bongbong and even hinted that he was a drug user. This animosity came in part out of Duterte’s belief that his daughter should have taken the top slot in the electoral campaign. Yet, in voters’ eyes, Bongbong Marcos is the inheritor of the Duterte mantle, whose signature policy has been a merciless war on drugs.
The Marcos campaign has also employed social media to devastating effect in purposely rewriting history. In a country with some of the world’s highest social media usage, the campaign has flooded Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok with stories and images of the Ferdinand Marcos regime as if its reign had been a golden age of growth and glamor. In this false narrative, the dictatorship is whitewashed of human rights violations and of corruption cases filed against it. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa has termed this “digital authoritarianism.”
The willful distortion of history is aided by a demographic structure in which about 50 percent of the country’s voters, aged between 18 and 41, never experienced the violence of the Marcos dictatorship. This group is most susceptible to disinformation on social media. But the problem is deeper than demography. Historical amnesia is not just about willful disinformation by political partisans. In many democracies, nations can often forget a past marked by brutality when current governments fail to improve the lives of the middle and working classes.
The 1986 People Power movement earned worldwide praise for its success in overthrowing a tyrant without violence. It was a watershed for democracy, but it was also an incomplete project. The Philippines was unable to build on its democratic triumph, strengthen institutions, protect human rights, and spread economic gains. This developmental gap created a collective desire for a strongman to solve the country’s problems.
The election of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr as president of the Philippines will inevitably have a resounding impact on democracy, undermining its values and institutions. But just as important will be the lessons we learn from such turns in history. The phenomenal strength of the Marcos campaign demonstrates amply that historical amnesia must be forcefully challenged if democracy is to hold its ground.