- Jonathan Head
- BBC Southeast Asia correspondent
The history course in the Philippines has been completed.
The ruling family, which was ousted from power 36 years ago, and accused of outrageous greed and brutality, is about to return to the presidential palace.
It is a staggering blow to those who campaigned for accountability for abuses that occurred in the Philippines, during the old Marcos era.
The Marcos family has never apologized for the abuse, and has not returned many of the treasures they were accused of stealing from the National Treasury.
But how did Ferdinand “Pong Pong” Marcos Jr. manage it? What are the implications of his coming to power on the 110 million people in the Philippines, and on the country’s standing in the world?
Lies and distortion
In 1986, public anger toward the Marcos regime led to Ferdinand Marcos and his family being ousted and forced to leave the Philippines.
After only five years in exile, the family returned and immediately began to enter political circles again.
Pong Pong has been working almost continuously since the age of twenty-three, except for the time he spent abroad. He was preparing himself all his life to win the presidency.
Other members of his family have held various political positions since they were allowed to return to the Philippines, including his mother Imelda and older sister Aimee. Imelda even ran for president just a year after their return in 1992.
The family has benefited greatly from its alliance with another powerful family, the Duterte family, and Rodrigo Duterte is the current Philippine president.
This alliance brought together the Marcos fiefs in Ilocos Norte and Leyte provinces in the north and center, along with Duterte’s stronghold of Mindanao in the south.
“The influence of this factor getting him this far is at least 50 percent,” says political strategist Alan German.
She had launched a campaign on social media to rebrand the old Marcos era – not as a period of martial law marked by massive human rights abuses, corruption and near economic collapse – but as a golden age of crime-free prosperity.
This began at least a decade ago, when hundreds of deceptively re-edited videos were broadcast on YouTube and then reposted on sympathetic Facebook pages.
These videos convinced millions of Filipinos that vilifying the Marcos after their downfall was unfair, and that stories of unparalleled greed were untrue.
“There is a range of lies and distortion in the videos,” says Fatima Zhao, who works in the Department of Communications Research at the University of the Philippines.
“There is an outright denial of the atrocities of the self-defense era. There is also a lot of distortion, and claims of economic progress during the so-called golden years of the Philippines, by choosing certain details.”
There are also the legends, widely believed by people in the poorer parts of the Philippines, that the Marcos family actually owns enormous wealth in offshore accounts or caches of gold bullion, but keeps it for the benefit of the Filipino people once they return to power.
The fact-checking center known as TSIC.PH found that the percentage of misinformation online about Marcos’ campaign through the end of April was 92 percent in his favour, while the percentage about his main rival, Vice President, Leni Robredo, was 96 percent. Negative information – including some offensive information.
The pro-Marcos disinformation campaign also benefited from widespread public disappointment with the failure of post-1986 administrations to make significant improvements in the lives of poorer Filipinos.
Bongbong has succeeded in portraying himself as a candidate for change, promising the happiness and unity of a country that has been fed up with political polarization and epidemic difficulties for years, and is thirsting for a better situation.
Bongbong avoided challenging his family’s record by staying away from all presidential debates and refusing media interviews, and managed to maintain the consistency of his positions despite millions of opposition to his presidency.
Facing a large number of competitors was also an important advantage. Votes against him were distributed among nine candidates, and the most powerful of them, Leni Robredo, announced her candidacy too late, giving her campaign enough time to counter Marcos’ strong rhetoric.
The fate of democracy
But what can we expect from a Marcos presidency?
Bongbong did not talk much about the details of his political platform during his election campaign, which in any case consists of a list of unglamorous promises. It is largely characterized by continuing President Duterte’s policies.
One obvious concern is what happens to efforts to recover the money the Marcos allegedly stole when they were last in power.
The presidential commission, formed after the 1986 uprising, has recovered about a third of the so-called “illicit wealth” of between 15-10 billion dollars – including jewels, valuable paintings and Imelda’s famous shoes – but the committee is still hunting for the rest.
Bong-bong suggested that he would expand the commission’s jurisdiction to include other families, but given the limited progress in holding the Marcos family accountable as they are out of power, it is hard to imagine much progress now.
There is also the issue of unpaid taxes on Marcus’ estate – Bong Bong was convicted of failing to file a tax return in 1995.
There is a judgment in the United States on him because he violated the court for not paying compensation to the victims of human rights violations committed by his father, which will make any official visit for him to the United States, an ally of the Philippines, difficult.
She will monitor his partnership with Duterte closely.
Bongbong promised to continue President Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign, but indicated he would support less violent methods.
Sarah Duterte, the president’s daughter, appears almost certain to win the vice presidency, and her popularity may make her a potential candidate for president in 2028.
But President Duterte has not officially endorsed Marcos, and his relationship with his daughter is not always smooth sailing.
The vice president is elected separately from the president, and Duterte’s daughter may want to use her position to advance her political career.
But the position has no weight in terms of power compared to the authority of the president. Although they are formally allied on the campaign trail, they will need to agree on how to divide the posts.
But there are more important and bigger questions.
How much corruption – always a problem in the Philippines – and will it still exist in the Marcos family’s reputation?
Perhaps the biggest concern is the fate of democracy and civil rights, both of which have not received much attention under President Duterte.
But how will Pong Pong deal with opposition from the Marcos administration? How free is the media to continue investigating his family’s past?
The Marcos campaign’s public hostility to all but the friendliest media is not an encouraging sign.
Voters in the Philippines have long shown a bias toward strongman rule in the face of evil characters who make haphazard promises of democracy and business.
This explains the election of Josef Estrada in 1998, and then Duterte in 2016, who made no secret of his impatience with democratic norms.
Pong Pong Marcus doesn’t have that kind of charisma, but he has benefited greatly from reconstructed memories of his father’s strongman rule.
His social media campaign has proven a huge success, and there are fears that this will now be a model for future elections in the Philippines, with the mainstream media sidelined, and a storm of competing fact-free rhetoric spilling over the internet.
The return of his family to power heralds the end of the optimistic era of globalization. Arguably, this began when the United States refused to support his authoritarian father in the final years of the Cold War, inspiring pro-democracy movements around the world.
Now it’s over with the war in Ukraine, the collapse of Sino-US relations, and the rise of populist leaders riding a tsunami of misinformation on social media.