Why Do Filipinos Keep Voting for Authoritarian Leaders?

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Why Do Filipinos Keep Voting for Authoritarian Leaders?

A lack of thorough education has helped blur the Philippines’ history – and the lessons of the past.

Why Do Filipinos Keep Voting for Authoritarian Leaders?

The second inauguration of President Ferdinand Marcos on December 30, 1969.

Credit: Philippine Presidential Museum and Library

Less than a year before Filipinos head to the polls for the 2022 national elections, the latest survey shows that current President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sarah Duterte-Carpio, leads among prospective presidential candidates. The same survey revealed that Filipinos are open to the idea of Duterte taking the vice-presidential post in 2022. Duterte himself has declared he might run for vice president. The father and daughter team had already taken turns in ruling their local fiefdom in Davao City when Duterte-Carpio first took over the mayoral role in 2010. Even with more than 12,000 deaths and indictments from the International Criminal Court and U.N. Human Rights Council for crimes against humanity committed in the context of Duterte’s “war on drugs” campaign, it would seem that Filipinos are about to sign up for another six years of the Duterte regime.

Also making it into the top three presidential options is Bongbong Marcos, the son and namesake of the country’s authoritarian president, Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1972 to 1986 in a brutal and violent military dictatorship. The Marcos regime was responsible for over 11,000 documented cases of human rights violations, including thousands of deaths. Yet, in 2016, 30 years since the EDSA revolution ended the dictatorship, Marcos’ heir almost won the second highest elected post in the country.

The oddity of Filipinos electing political leaders with horrible human rights record has been the subject of my curiosity for years now. Why would Filipinos, who already deposed the bloody and violent Marcos regime, readily choose to elect his heirs and political leaders like Duterte?

Back in 2017, I conducted a study that sought to answer this question by examining the collective memories of young Filipinos on the Marcos regime. In looking at the Marcos regime through the lens of the generation that did not experience the period, we get an idea of what information and lessons were transmitted to the Filipino youth by important social institutions in Philippine society. In sharing what I have learned from my research, I hope to start a conversation and pique the interest of those who, like me, wish to make sense of how the heirs of the Philippines’ dark authoritarian past managed to return to political prominence in less than a generation.

The Filipino youth attribute the atrocities and widespread human rights violations during the Marcos regime to Ferdinand Marcos, the mastermind and author of the martial law. As one student puts it: “Marcos was very intelligent. As a product of a political family, he was already wealthy. But he really wanted absolute power which was not possible in a democratic country like ours.”

The youth’s description about the Marcos regime is far from conclusive or coherent, however. It was evident from their descriptions that they struggle to capture the complexity of conditions during the period of martial law. While all the students I interviewed conceded that Marcos’ martial law was rife in human rights violations, I still remember the first two words I wrote in my field notes when I asked a student in Marawi City what martial law meant to him: “Public order” was his answer. Ironically, as Marawi was besieged by Islamic States-affiliated militants, the city itself was placed under martial law in the same month I did the interview.

It is not lost on the students that the post-EDSA social and political upheavals in the country are consequences of martial law. A number of them acknowledged that Marcos might have meant well by declaring martial law, but that the regime’s policies eventually strayed from its original purpose.

Being students, it is not surprising that my respondents cite their professors, various schoolwork, and campus activities as the most prominent influences in forming and shaping their knowledge and opinions about the martial law. The Philippine Department of Education insists that they are committed to ensuring that lessons on human rights and democracy, including chapters on martial law, are integrated into the primary and secondary school curriculum. While my study confirms this, the students I interviewed reported that the period was only discussed as something that occurred during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos and as the precursor to the EDSA revolution, without going into much detail. They criticized the lack of meaningful and compelling discussion of the Marcos regime during their grade school and high school years. One respondent lamented: “We had four history subjects in [secondary] school and it seems a waste that we did not discuss the martial law.”

And so, 35 years since the brutal dictatorship ended, another Marcos is dangerously close to being elected to the presidency. If there’s one thing I can conclusively conclude from my research, it’s that the Marcoses and their well-oiled machinery are experts in the study of collective memories of Filipinos. Filipino memory scholar, Jocelyn Martin pointed out how Marcos’ heirs refused to bury his remains after his death. Instead, his corpse was preserved in a refrigerated crypt and displayed alongside relics of saints, obviously with the intent of rehabilitating his legacy and shaping the public’s sentiments toward the dictator. With Duterte’s blessing, Marcos was eventually buried in the country’s Heroes’ Cemetery in November 2016.

Jose Santos Ardivilla, UP professor of visual communications, also observed that despite the martial law’s notoriety in restricting the free press and mass media, there is no shortage of images used in pro-Marcos memes that project the martial law years as cosmopolitan, virile, organized, and progressive. Judging by the quality and varied array of photos used in these memes, the photos are likely to come from the cache curated by the Marcoses.

Yet there is more at play here than the reshaping of the younger generation’s public memory. In the runup to the 2016 elections, an analysis of the poll surveys showed that Bongbong Marcos was most likely to be supported by voters 55 years and older, those who directly experienced his father’s regime. Why is this?

When I shared the findings of my studies with my late professor, Dr. Erlinda Burton, I made the mistake of comparing Marcos with Hitler, and the Marcos regime with the Holocaust. Burton corrected me and clarified: “Hitler targeted all the Jews, no exception. Unlike Hitler, Marcos was only a dictator and dictators target only those who oppose them.”

Burton’s observation provides the answer to the question: Why are people who lived through and experienced the martial law likely to vote for Marcos’ son? People who don’t value human rights, democracy, freedom, and all the things Marcos revoked were unlikely to protest his regime. Those who didn’t see anything wrong with the corruption and the excessive loans the Marcoses took out to fund their extravagant lifestyles in the 1970s did not speak out against his rule – hence, they would not have been targeted and attacked. That’s why there are older generations of Filipinos who profess that the Marcos regime was nothing out of the ordinary, even going as far as proclaiming the period as the golden age of the country. People will not value, let alone fight for, something they do not understand.

There is a silver lining. The students I talked to admitted that, prior to entering university, they were largely oblivious to the realities of the martial law – but only until they entered college, where they were greatly influenced by their schools’ social teachings. One student recounted that, despite his conservative upbringing in a Chinese high school, he was moved to join the protests against Marcos’ burial at the Heroes’ Cemetery. And he was not alone. Young people made up most of the crowds that participated in the series of rallies in 2016, many of whom protesting for the first time in their lives.

All is not hopeless; activism and social involvement among young Filipinos are not dead. But the youth’s idealism, critical thinking, and enthusiasm in their search for truth needs to be nurtured, even protected. Because if not, the Philippines will keep on voting for authoritarian leaders.

The results of the study cited in this article can be accessed here.