What the Marcos' return to power means for the Philippines

By Jonathan Head
South East Asia correspondent

Published
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr and his family

History has come full circle in the Philippines.

A ruling family which was driven out of power 36 years ago, accused of spectacular greed and brutality, is all but set to return to Malacañang - the presidential palace.

It is a stunning blow to those in the Philippines who have campaigned for accountability for the abuses of the old Marcos era. The Marcos family has never apologised for those abuses, nor given back much of the treasure they are accused of stealing from the national purse.

How has Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr done it? And what are the implications for the 110 million people of the Philippines, and for its place in the world?

Lies and distortion

In 1986, public anger towards the Marcos regime saw Ferdinand Marcos and his family toppled and forced out of the Philippines.

But after just five years in exile, the family returned - and immediately began making their way back into political circles.

Bongbong has been almost continually in office since the age of 23, aside from his time abroad. Winning the presidency is something he has been preparing for all his life.

Other members of his family have also held various political offices since they were allowed to return to the Philippines, including his mother Imelda and his older sister Imee. Imelda even contested the presidency just a year after coming back in 1992.

They have also benefitted greatly by aligning themselves with another powerful family, the Dutertes. Rodrigo Duterte is the current president of the Philippines.

This brought together the Marcos' fiefdom in the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Leyte in the north and centre, together with the Dutertes' stronghold of Mindanao in the south.

"If I'm going to put a number on it that's at least 50% of the reason he has come this far," says political strategist Alan German. "The Duterte machinery is strong, he is a well-loved president."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Marcos and Duterte families came together in the 2022 election

Then there was the social media campaign to rebrand the old Marcos era - not as a period of martial law, with its terrible human rights abuses, corruption and near-economic collapse - but as a golden age of crime-free prosperity.

This began at least a decade ago, with hundreds of deceptively-edited videos being uploaded to Youtube, which were then reposted on sympathetic Facebook pages.

These persuaded millions of Filipinos that the vilification of the Marcoses after their downfall was unfair, that the stories of unrivalled greed were untrue.

"There's a spectrum of lies and distortion in these videos," says Fatima Gaw at the University of the Philippines Department of Communications Research.

"There is outright denial of the atrocities of the martial era. There's also a lot of distortion, claims of economic progress during the so-called golden years of the Philippines, by cherry picking particular details."

And then there are the myths, widely believed in poorer parts of the Philippines, that the Marcoses do indeed hold vast wealth in offshore accounts or hidden stashes of gold bullion, but that these are being kept to benefit the Filipino people once they are restored to power.

Collaborative fact-checking venture Tsek.ph found that up to the end of April, 92% of online disinformation about the Marcos campaign was in its favour, whereas 96% about his main rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, was negative - including some nasty slanders against her.

But the pro-Marcos disinformation campaign has also benefited from widespread public disappointment over the failure of the post-1986 administrations to bring significant improvements to the lives of poorer Filipinos.

Bongbong has successfully portrayed himself as the candidate for change, promising happiness and unity to a country weary of years of political polarisation and pandemic hardship, and hungry for a better story.

By staying away from all the presidential debates and refusing media interviews, he avoided having his family's record challenged, and was able to maintain the illusion of harmony, despite millions remaining opposed to his presidency.

The fact that he faced so many rivals was also a significant advantage. The anti-Marcos vote was divided among nine candidates, and the strongest among them, Leni Robredo, declared late, giving her unusually spirited campaign little time to counter the powerful Marcos narrative.

The fate of democracy

So what can we expect from the Marcos presidency? He spoke little about the details of his policy platform while campaigning, which in any case is an unremarkable list of promises, largely to continue the policies of President Duterte.

One obvious concern is what happens to the efforts to recover the money allegedly stolen by the Marcoses when they were last in power.

The Presidential Commission on Good Governance (PCGG), established after the 1986 uprising, has recovered about one third of the $10-15bn of so-called "ill-gotten wealth" - including jewellery, valuable paintings and Imelda's famous shoes - but is officially still pursuing the rest.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Imelda Marcos' infamous shoe collection

Bongbong has suggested that he would widen the PCGG's remit to include other families, but given the limited progress in holding the Marcoses to account while they were out of power, it is hard to imagine much progress now they are back.

There is also the matter of unpaid tax on the Marcos estate - Bongbong was found guilty of failing to file a tax return in 1995.

And there's a verdict in the United States that he is in contempt of court for failing to pay reparations to victims of his father's human rights violations, which will make any official visit to the US, a treaty ally of the Philippines, tricky.

His partnership with the Dutertes will also be watched closely.

Bongbong has promised to continue President Duterte's controversial anti-drug campaign, but hinted that he would support less violent methods.

Sara Duterte, the president's daughter, is near-certain to win the vice-presidency, and her own popularity makes her a likely presidential candidate in 2028.

But President Duterte has not formally endorsed Marcos, nor is his relationship with his daughter always smooth.

The vice-president is elected separately from the president, and Ms Duterte may wish to use her position to propel her own political career.

However the post carries little power compared to that of the president. While formally allied in the campaign, they will need to agree on how to divide the spoils of office.

But there are some bigger questions.

How much corruption - always a problem in the Philippines - will there be under a family with the reputation of the Marcoses?

And perhaps the greatest concern will be over the fate of democracy and civil rights, both of which suffered under President Duterte.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Duterte's administration has been condemned for its brutality

How will Bongbong deal with opposition to a Marcos administration? How free will the media be to keep investigating his family's past?

The Marcos campaign's open hostility to all but the most friendly media outlets is not an encouraging sign.

Voters in the Philippines have long shown a partiality to strongman rule, to roguish characters who promise to dispense with the messy compromises of democracy and get things done.

That explains the election of Joseph Estrada in 1998, and more recently in the 2016 of Mr Duterte, who made no secret of his impatience with democratic norms.

Bongbong Marcos does not have that kind of charisma, but he has run largely on refashioned memories of the strongman rule of his father.

His social media campaign has proved so successful there are fears this will now be the model for future elections in the Philippines, with the mainstream media sidelined, and a blizzard of fact-free narratives competing online.

His family's return to power also neatly bookends the optimistic age of globalisation. This arguably began when the US refused to support his autocratic father in the waning years of the Cold War, inspiring pro-democracy movements across the world.

It has now come to an end with the war in Ukraine, the breakdown of China-US relations, and the rise of populist leaders riding a tsunami of social media disinformation.