How the Marcos family made a comeback in the Philippines
How the Marcos family made a comeback in the Philippines

Thirty-six years after disgraced dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr was driven out of the Philippines by the “People Power” movement, his son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr has been elected president in a landslide victory.

Marcos Jr received 31 million votes, about 58 percent of the total cast, to defeat nine other candidates, including incumbent Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo, who came second with 14 million votes. This is the first time in decades that a presidential candidate has won a popular majority. Incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 with just 16.6 million votes, or 39 percent of the total. More than 80 percent of the country’s 65.7 million registered voters participated in the 9 May poll, the highest turnout since 1998.

The popularity of Marcos Jr appears puzzling, given the notoriety and record of his family. The two-decade dictatorial rule of Marcos Sr was characterised by plunder, corruption and grave human rights violations that led to his popular ousting. Yet even after Marcos Sr was chased out of the country, candidates running in local elections in his home province sought the “blessing of the old man in Hawaii” (the place to which the family fled) in the late 1980s. The Marcos “return” can in fact be explained, not by the population’s “love” for authoritarian leaders, but by the heightened level of the country’s political dynasties’ organisation.

Indeed, Marcos was languishing in the polls until forming a coalition with the current president’s daughter under the name “UniTeam Alliance”. In November last year, four parties fronted by families that previously have held the presidency (the Estradas, Arroyos, Marcoses and Dutertes) signed an agreement to back Marcos Jr for president and Sara Duterte for vice-president.

Before the announcement of the alliance, it was Sara Duterte and not Marcos Jr who was leading the polls. Pulse Asia recorded Duterte leading in late 2020 with 26 percent, and Marcos Jr with 14 percent. Leni Robredo, who eventually became the head of the Marcos opposition, was at 8 percent. From the moment the coalition was announced, Marcos and Sara Duterte won majority support in polls. They maintained this throughout the campaign. In December last year, Marcos was the top choice for president for 53 percent of respondents.

In the Philippines, families whose members have served across several terms are called dynasties. According to Rappler, a news website citing an Ateneo School of Government study, “‘fat’ political dynasties—where members simultaneously hold elective posts—hold 80 percent of the country’s gubernatorial posts. In Congress, they control 67 percent of seats”. The most notable dynastic families are the Aquinos, the Arroyos, the Estradas, the Marcoses and the Dutertes.

The Marcos and Duterte clans rose to prominence first as lawyers, then as politicians. Mariano Marcos was elected to the House of Representatives in 1925 as the second district representative of Ilocos Norte, on the island of Luzon, the largest and most populous in the Philippines, and Vicente Duterte as governor of Davao, capital of the southern island of Mindanao, the country’s second largest, in 1959.

Dynastic alliances are not new. The 2019 congressional midterms were won by President Duterte’s coalition, with the Arroyos, Estradas and Marcoses as prominent allies. The Marcoses were also donors to Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign. Much earlier than that, in 1991, the family returned to the Philippines after Marcos Sr’s death. Since then, according to Manuel Quezon III, writing in the Asia Sentinel, the Marcoses have consistently used their political resources and influence to help other political dynasties when they were confronted by liberal anti-corruption oppositions. In exchange, the Estrada and Arroyo administrations “proved helpful in moderating the zeal of government offices in pursuing the Marcoses’ wealth”.

The unpaid estate tax of the Marcos family is estimated to be nearly US$4 billion. The family matriarch, Imelda Marcos, was found guilty of corruption in 2018, but a Supreme Court appeal is pending. The International Criminal Court opening an investigation into Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, through which thousands of people have been murdered by police, adds another motive for strengthening the alliance and holding on to influential political positions.

The alliance also brought together the Marcoses’ “solid north” base—the nine northernmost provinces under the Ilocos Region and Cagayan Valley, where the new president won 85 percent of some 4 million votes—and the “solid south” of Mindanao.  Except for one city and two provinces (out of 27), Marcos garnered around two-thirds of the 12 million votes cast in Mindanao.

Since 1998, a Marcos has been governor of Ilocos Norte. Similarly, the province’s second congressional district has been represented by a Marcos or a close relative. The seat passed from Imee Marcos to her brother Marcos Jr to their mother, Imelda, and then to the incumbent Angelo Marcos Barba, Imee’s first cousin. Their uninterrupted rule helped consolidate a vast patronage network that flows on to electoral votes.

The degree of influence of the Marcos machine is illustrated by the fact that even Cory Aquino—who led the People Power movement before becoming president in 1986—appeared to conclude that it was better to use it than to fight it. The LA Times reported in 1988 that Aquino endorsed a Marcos loyalist and his entire slate of mayoral candidates.

The typical pattern of election campaigning in the Philippines involves a local machine, often centred on a mayor or mayoral candidate. These then forge alliances with higher level candidates at the provincial and/or national level. These higher level candidates provide their local allies with resources—such as cash, campaign material and other benefits. In return, the local candidates mobilise their apparatus to help the campaigns of their higher level partners. Often the resources are used simply for vote buying.

As such, local machines run on money. The Marcos and Duterte machines are particularly well oiled and thus able to ally with other dynasties with significant local machines. Another consequence of the “UniTeam Alliance” is that the billionaires who backed Rodrigo Duterte funnelled money to Marcos Jr after the announcement that Sara Duterte was to be his vice-presidential running mate. The third richest man in the Philippines, billionaire tycoon Enrique Razon, went from supporting “Isko” Moreno, another presidential candidate, to Marcos.

Manuel Quezon III remarked that the Marcoses “only needed to reassemble a network of provincial barons, into a disciplined, motivated because well-funded, association of regional powers. Marcos symbolically ran under the banner of the Federal Party [which was formed by Duterte’s supporters in 2018], to demonstrate the sweetener he was offering these local barons ... Infinitely resourced, unbeatably broad, incontestably disciplined and organised, it left nothing to chance and maintained a commanding lead from start to finish”.

While a significant portion of Filipinos identify with and support the political project of “law and order” or “discipline” that is associated with the Marcos-Duterte name and are disaffected with the liberal elite (notably the Liberal Party administrations that ruled after the People Power movement), the organised local machines still remain decisive in elections, particularly this one. The evolution of patronage politics into a Duterte-Marcos bloc supported by regional powers presents itself as a serious challenge for democratic forces in the country.

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