Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, is set for one of the largest electoral victories in Philippine history, according to unofficial polling data gathered by the country’s Commission on Elections (Comelec).
With 94.4 percent of precincts reporting, Marcos Jr. had garnered just over 30 million votes, or 58.9 percent of the total votes cast, Rappler reported this morning, citing partial, unofficial results based on real-time data from Comelec’s server. This was more than double that of his closest challenger, current Vice President Leni Robredo, who had won 14.3 million, or 28.1 percent of the total.
Marcos’ vice presidential running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of the current president, enjoys an even larger margin of victory, with 30.3 million votes (61.2 percent of the total) to just 8.9 million (18 percent) for second-placed Kiko Pangilinan.
In a video message posted to his Facebook page, “Bongbong,” as Marcos is nicknamed, did not claim victory explicitly, but expressed his gratitude “to all of those who have been with us in this long and sometimes very difficult journey for the last six months.” “Let us keep watch on the vote,” he said. “If we’ll be fortunate, I’ll expect that your help will not wane, your trust will not wane because we have a lot of things to do in the times ahead.”
While these results have not been officially ratified by Comelec, it is clear that the Philippines has elected another Marcos and another Duterte by historic margins. At the 2016 election, current President Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency with just 39 percent of the popular vote, while in 2010, the late Benigno Aquino III gained 42 percent. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won with just under 40 percent of the vote at the 2004 election, around the same proportion of the vote that lifted Joseph Estrada to the presidency in 1998.
The margin of victory was accurately reflected in pre-election polls, which showed both Marcos and Duterte-Carpio far out front of the rest of the field. Aside from Robredo, who ran a dynamic campaign that tapped into a deep reservoir of enthusiasm among the youth, even among many too young to vote, none of the other high-profile candidates elicited much excitement. Comelec’s provisional results showed former boxing star Manny Pacquiao with 6.8 percent of the vote, followed by Manila Mayor Isko Moreno with just 3.6 percent. Of the remaining candidates, only senator and former national police chief Ping Lacson was able to crack 1 percent of the popular vote.
The remarkable thing about the win is not only that it completes the remarkable rehabilitation of the Marcos clan, nearly four decades after Marcos Sr. was overthrown in an army-backed “People Power” revolution in 1986, but also that Marcos Jr. managed to do so by such a large margin, six years after after narrowly losing the 2016 vice presidential race to Robredo. As the journalist Lian Buan of Rappler noted on Twitter, Marcos’ victory ends a “well-oiled campaign that sought to bury the past, rally for unity, and evade scrutiny.”
The return of the Marcoses raises a number of questions, both immediate and longer-term. The immediate question concerns how Marcos will lead the Philippines once he begins his six-year term on June 30. The president-elect will inherit from Duterte the seemingly perpetual challenges of poverty and unemployment, which have been exacerbated by the economic downturn of COVID-19. He will also be faced with stubbornly persistent Muslim and communist insurgencies that a string of presidents have failed sufficiently to address.
The Marcos campaign has offered few hints of how he plans to tackle the country’s main problems, instead focusing on bromides of “unity.” Neither his personal campaign website nor that of his UniTeam ticket contains much information about policy, nor about how Marcos plans to address the country’s challenges. However, in most ways we can expect a continuation of the vague, improvisational Duterte agenda of the past six years, with adjustments for personal style and inclination. There is a likelihood that another candidate elected on promises of change, and of overcoming deep political divisions, will simply dish up more of the same.
The victory will also no doubt be good news for Duterte. Marcos is unlikely to respond to demands to prosecute the outgoing president for thousands of killings during his bloody anti-drug crackdown, nor cooperate with the ongoing investigation of the killings by the International Criminal Court. The return of the Marcoses to Malacañang will also almost certainly terminate the long-running efforts to track down the billions of dollars looted from the state coffers during Marcos Sr.’s 1965-86 rule.
Another immediate question concerns the Philippines international alignments in an era of growing strategic turbulence. Marcos will enter office after six years in which Duterte engaged in a dalliance with Xi Jinping’s China, and courted friction with the Philippines’ traditional security ally, the United States, even as Beijing repeatedly sent maritime militia vessels into Philippine-claimed regions of the South China Sea.
There is good reason to think that Marcos will continue to pursue close relations with Beijing, but with most of the Philippine security establishment in favor of strengthening ties with Washington, and even Duterte rebalancing back toward the U.S. somewhat over the past two years, it is likely that a Marcos administration will seek to maintain a more balanced foreign policy. As Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in an article yesterday, “Marcos might well try to revive Duterte’s early outreach to Beijing, but he is unlikely to toss the U.S. alliance overboard as part of the effort.”
For its own part, meanwhile, the Biden administration, concerned about the growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, will no doubt find a creative way of overcoming its concerns about the controversial legacy of the Marcos clan, and quashing the pending U.S. arrest warrant against Bongbong, issued following his failure to comply with the decisions of a Hawaii court’s 2011 ruling on how the family’s seized assets should have been disbursed to the victims of human rights violations.
The broader questions arising from Marcos’ victory concern the overall trajectory of Philippine politics, and how we perceive the global crisis of democracy. In explanations of the Marcos phenomenon, much attention has focused on the historical revisionism engineered by the Marcos campaign, especially via social media, which has asserted the earlier Marcos reign as an era of stability and order. But as I’ve noted before, the return of the once-shunned Marcos clan speaks to more profound social and political forces; disinformation alone can neither explain the Marcos victory, nor account for its massive scale.
In an article for the Washington Post published last week, Marco Garrido, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, offered a fuller explanation for the worrying developments in Philippine politics. He cites research he has conducted concluding that Filipinos’ attitudes to democracy have soured considerably since the People Power revolution of 1986. In the 36 years since, the country has seen a dozen coup attempts, dozens of corruption scandals, three impeachment attempts, and one impeachment trial. Unsurprisingly, he writes, “people have become increasingly frustrated at the failure of liberal measures to transform the country’s dysfunctional democracy.”
Garrido might also have mentioned the country’s long-term economic trajectory: in 1960, the Philippines was richer per capita than Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, or China, but today lags far behind all of them. Even then, what wealth has been created has largely gone to those who are already wealthy.
As a result of these failures, many people have come to believe that they cannot change things via the existing democratic institutions, Garrido argues. This string of failures “encouraged an orientation toward a different sort of political intervention — in the form of a ‘strong leader’ standing above and against traditional politics.”
What is most interesting about Garrido’s argument is his claim that six years of abrasive, belligerent rule by Duterte, including his bloody “war on drugs,” has actually enhanced the popular appeal of this “strongman” leadership style. “While many Filipinos remain opposed to Duterte’s strongman tactics, it would seem that in general Filipinos have developed a taste for illiberal rule,” he writes. “This no doubt plays into their willingness to countenance another Marcos.”
Garrido’s findings imply that for many Filipinos, the difference between the pre- and post-1986 periods, at least for those old enough to remember the former, is one of degree rather than kind; that the Marcos era was really a more menacing, bloated, and federally integrated version of the corrupt dynastic politics and lopsided concentrations of wealth that have prevailed in the provinces since the Spanish era.
It remains to be seen whether six years of Marcos presidency will come to be seen as the point at which the Philippines turns decisively from the hollow “cacique democracy” described by Benedict Anderson in the late 1980s to a more open form of autocracy. Whatever happens, the Philippines’ trajectory is a good example of why dividing the world into two contending camps of democracies and authoritarian nations – a favored framing of the Biden administration and much of the Western foreign policy commentariat – fails to account for the complexities of a nation like the Philippines, where raucous democratic contestation and a fearless national press exist alongside unjust concentrations of wealth, widespread persistent poverty, and frequent political violence.
With Marcos at the helm, the next six years are likely to dial up the contradictions between the idea and reality of democracy still further.