Hall of infamy: Bongbong Marcos

Like father, like son? The new Filipino president is the product of his parents’ politics – and the centre-left’s failure.


POSITION: President of the Philippines

REPUTATION: Heir of dictatorship and corruption

When the 65-year-old Fernando ‘Bongbong’ Marcos swept to power with 59 per cent of the vote last May, he rode in on a wave of disinformation. This included a falsified history of his dictator father Fernando, who was the first to dramatically undermine human rights in the post-independence island archipelago. Marcos Senior ruled from 1965 to 1986, pillaging an estimated $6 billion from the public coffers and imprisoning, torturing and killing his opponents under his martial-law regime.

Bongbong’s mother Imelda, meanwhile, gained infamy for her wardrobe of 3,000 pairs of shoes. By 1986 Filipinos had had enough. A revolution spearheaded by Corazon Aquino and the Philippine Democratic Party-People’s Power coalition (PDP-Laban), and eventually supported by disaffected Marcosites, forced the ruling family to relocate their sumptuous lifestyle to Hawaii. But people’s power was not to be: like much of the centre-left, the new government failed to turn words to deeds. Aquino’s oligarchical camp caved to neo-liberal orthodoxies that left the shantytown and small-farmer Filipino majority angry and alienated.

It’s no surprise that such conditions paved the way for the return of the populist Right, with the usual law-and-order ticket villainizing ‘corrupt insiders’, leftists, environmentalists, journalists and anyone else standing in their way. More remarkable is that this comeback materialized in Rodrigo Duterte, an alleged ex-communist insurgent who joined PDP-Laban and was promoted by Aquino. As President – still, bizarrely, at the helm of the centre-left party – Duterte shredded human rights by putting anyone who stood in his way on a kill list of supposed drug dealers; many thousands lost their lives. When Duterte’s non-renewable term finished, Bongbong saw his chance and ran for president with Sara Duterte – Rodrigo’s daughter – as his running mate. Their toxic combination of nationalism and populism again proved a winning formula, catapulting Marcos Junior into power. When asked to account for his family’s brutal legacy, this crown prince of historical denialism denounced ‘self-serving statements by politicians, self-aggrandizement narratives, pompous declarations, and political posturing and propaganda’.

But so far his record is pretty much in line with family tradition. While he hunts for international investment from Singapore and Indonesia and espouses fine words at the UN, some 48 per cent of Filipino families now register as poor, squeezed by heavy debt loads and inflation. So far Bongbong has yet to announce a programme of relief.

Bongbong has also committed to continuing his predecessor’s draconian war on poor drug users. Press freedom continues to deteriorate, with popular radio host and long-time Marcos critic Percival Mabasa recently gunned down by two motorcyclists. Political opponents have not fared much better – leftist intellectual and opposition vice-presidential candidate at this year’s election, Walden Bello, has been flung into jail on ‘cyber-libel’ charges, which he describes as a ‘smokescreen’. Bello and his running mate, labour activist Leody de Guzman, were highly critical of the refusal of Bongbong and Sara Duterte to engage in any public debates during the campaign.

Bongbong’s mould of ‘strongman’ charismatic authoritarian politics has had a long run in the Philippines. From Milan to Mumbai and back to Manila it is becoming more rule than exception. Will electorates continue to be successfully manipulated by the nationalist theatre and scapegoating politics of the populist Right? The question hangs in the air – and not just for Filipinos.

LOW CUNNING: Bongbong’s rightwing populism cloaks its crony capitalism in a nationalist rhetoric, making nice with the likes of Russia and China while maintaining a system of ecocide, exploitation and inequality at home. The Marcos family’s natural inclination to all things Uncle Sam is curtailed by outstanding arrest warrants for evading $353.6 million awarded against them in a human rights lawsuit. These days, of course, Bongbong bathes in diplomatic immunity.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: The eight year old Bongbong played himself in a 1965 pre-election film pumping the Marcos family, announcing way back then that:

‘Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,
I am Bongbong Marcos.
When I grow up, I want to be a politician.
I will serve my country, especially the poor.’

Guess he forgot.

Sources: New York Times; Human Rights Watch; Rappler; CNN; OpenDemocracy; People’s Dispatch; New Left Review; Esquire.