SpotPH: Ferdinand Marcos Jr and the Marcos Mythology

(The following essay is written by Clinton Palance for Spot.PH)


In 1986 I spent most of the year in Shanghai, when the city was still full of old men in Mao suits and everyone rode a bicycle. The country had recently been opened to the outside world and they got their news from a single government news agency by reading newspapers tacked to communal bulletin boards under the plane trees. Although much of the events of February that year in Manila had been heavily redacted by the censors, everyone we talked to was elated to meet someone from the Philippines. “Aquino!” they said, in Chinese. “People’s revolution!” It was a great time to be a Filipino.

Exactly 30 years later, the people of the Philippines seem to be ready to elect the deposed dictator’s son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. to the second-highest position in the country. To a Martial Law baby such as myself, the thought of this is as toxic as the Nazi party returning to power in Germany by popular demand. The surreal spectre of Marcos’ election as vice president is made even more noxious by the unexpected choice of a former human rights lawyer who is known for her outspoken, populist ballsiness as his running-mate for president.

Miriam Defensor-Santiago is too smart to have entered the presidential race expecting to win; but she is expecting to, and most certainly will, have fun along the way. She is no doubt being well-compensated for her acquiescence in the rigmarole, which will be a good retirement fund for a politician wrapping up her career. Although she will not win the presidency, she has the power to be a great disruptive force in what was assumed to be a two- or three-horse race, as well as to be tremendously distracting in the debates, further hindering the public’s attention on issues. It’s an ignominious way for one of politics’ much-beloved Falstaff figures to go out.

How do we explain Marcos’ popularity? It has been less than three decades after the trauma of whimsical “salvagings” of political opponents, routine torture in Fort Bonifacio (the prisoners were held in the lot now occupied by S&R), and massive economic instability and growing debt ended in jubilant crowds and a peaceful revolution that was compared to Gandhi’s liberation. Today, his son Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. is neck-and-neck with Francis “Chiz” Escudero for the position of vice president. Are we amnesiac as a people? Is this a failure of collective memory?

There is a concept in Philippine politics about the “masses,” the supposedly imbecilic herd who are easily manipulated and subject to the workings of “machinery.” I don’t know if all this exists or it is quite as simple as all that. But we, the middle class, can’t be too smug. Imelda Marcos, the dictator’s wife, who is a lot less kooky than she seems, is a fixture at society events, and was hob-nobbing with the Ateneo de Manila University faculty at a scholarship event last year. Imee Marcos was famously on the cover of the Philippine Tatler this month, which caused a lot of outrage but sold a lot of magazines. And these are just the people who bear the Marcos name. It is literally impossible to do business or to socialize in Manila without bumping into someone, or the descendants of someone who was, in some way, associated with the Marcoses or profited during the dictatorship.

“Sins of the father,” we say, and brush it off. Nevertheless, one main point of exoneration being used by today’s pro-Marcos camp is that he is not his father; the opposition points out (and quite rightly) that he has shown no remorse and in fact glorifies his father’s presidency. But the truth is that doesn’t have to clear his name. The Marcos presidency looms large in the public imagination, much larger the beleaguered Aquino one that followed it. If you get a random person to recite the presidents, I would wager most would get Aguinaldo, Quezon, and Laurel, then have to think hard up until Marcos. His presidency spanned over two decades; the buildings that Imelda built still dominate the landscape; and he spun a complex and rich mythology that no one has been able to match. “Ang Bagong Lipunan,” the heroic comic-book imagery of springing out from the bamboo as Malakas at Maganda, the appropriation of the Maharlika and all that it stood for, remain unmatched in their imaginative scope. It’s not just that he was a brilliant lawyer who turned into a brilliant thief, but he spun a great story that people still believe.

The history books, post-Marcos, are fuzzy. Even if all the presidents who followed him were capable and honest, which they weren’t, they would still be picking up the pieces of a broken economy. Marcos entrenched a culture of corruption in government that made it okay not just to steal a little but a lot, brazenly, without bothering to keep up a pretence of rectitude. And again, the middle class are complicit: we sigh and cave in to the culture of corruption because it’s the way business is done in this town. We make cynical jokes about dirty politicians rather than hold them to a higher standard, and guess what, they live down to it and more.

We can’t really say #neveragain to something that never went away in the first place. Imelda Marcos ran for president under the KBL banner in 1992; Ferdinand Marcos Jr. won a seat in the House of Representatives in the same year and has been in power almost continuously since then; and there has never been a national election since 1986 that the Marcos money did not have a hand in influencing. I have never quite understood the concept of a bailiwick or of continuing to support a thief and murderer just because we share the same home province, but apparently people do it.

Worryingly, though, Marcos’ popularity, and power, comes from significant strata of the general population outside of Ilocos. While Manuel Roxas II campaigns on the promise of the continuation of “Daang Matuwid,” Ferdinand Marcos Jr. coasts along on the historical memory of his father’s presidency and the paucity of notable personalities to come after him. It’s not so much that people have forgotten about the Marcos presidency, but that there is so little of note to remember that came after it. As the reality of a Marcos return to the Executive Branch looms, some of the old freedom-fighters have emerged from the woodwork to tell, once more, the stories about Martial Law. It may be too little too late; worse, it could even bolster the myth of a strong state that did not tolerate fools gladly. And there is a strong authoritarian streak in our psyche; there are many who believe that an iron hand would be good for the country.

And it is our fault: we are to blame. The fault is ours for not telling the story of the nightmares of dictatorship as throughly as we should have. It is ours for not passing on the torch and responsibility of freedom and democracy to a new generation obsessed only with progress, from Philippines 2000 to the continuing promise of First World status. It is ours for not inscribing that victory in 1986 in the history books, for not making it one of the founding myths of our society.

That Marcos would run for higher office was inevitable, given his quiet but inexorable climb from governor to becoming one of the highest-polling senators. What is unexpected and alarming, though, is his new power base among the youth: a popularity that his very capable communications staff will be translating into votes. Added to the resurgent loyalists and the family’s traditional power base in the north, his victory is almost inevitable. Perhaps it’s time to change the rally slogan of “Never again” to something along the lines of “This ends now.”