Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos-Sara Duterte election: In the Philippines, nostalgia for strongmen trumps democracy

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How does democracy unravel? In recent years, numerous countries have started to offer case studies. Steady state capture of institutions and relentless culture wars by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sparked a slow-rolling political crisis within the European Union. In India, the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist agenda is eroding a democracy long anchored by the country’s religious and ethnic pluralism. And right-wing demagogues in the United States and Brazil have strained the guardrails of their countries’ democratic systems, to varying yet worrying effects.

Then, there’s the Philippines, where the scion of a dictator toppled by epochal mass — an uprising which gave the world the phrase “people power” — is now about to surge back into power. On Monday, voters went to the polls to elect a new president and delivered what appeared to be a landlide victory to former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

For Marcos, it’s a triumph that brings a full circle a journey that began in 1986, when he and his family fled Manila’s Malacañang Palace to life in exile in Hawaii. His father, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, had infamously ruled the country under martial law and looted billions of dollars of state funds. His mother, Imelda, likely used some of that ill-gotten money to amass one of the world’s largest shoe collections. Their time in office was known for its corruption, decadence and repressive cruelty.

But such is the state of the country’s politics — and the fitful struggles of its democracy over the past three decades — that many Filipinos have little problem returning a Marcos to power. Though he did little to distance himself from his father’s despotic legacy, Marcos sauntered to victory with twice as many votes than his nearest rival, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, whose supporters had hoped was entering election day on a wave of grass roots momentum.

How the Philippines’ brutal history is being whitewashed for voters

Marcos will take up the mantle left by the populist, controversial rule of President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, without the option to run for a second term, faces potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court for the bloody drug war unleashed during his term, which has seen thousands of extrajudicial killings. Duterte’s critics say he established an “elected strongman” regime, squeezing the space for dissent and attacking the press, while raging against a hectoring West and courting closer ties to Russia and China.

None of this, though, dented his popularity among a major swath of the Filipino public, which welcomed his tough approach and was also prey to new networks of pro-government online disinformation that spawned during Duterte’s time in office. “In the global war on the truth, the Philippines is especially vulnerable. About 99 percent of its population is online, and over half find it difficult to spot fake news,” wrote my colleagues Regine Cabato and Shibani Mahtani. “Duterte rose to power in 2016 aided by a keyboard army and online hate campaigns, forever changing the online landscape.”

Marcos ran for vice president in 2016, but elections for vice president in the Philippines are separate from that of the president and he was beaten then by Robredo, a social activist and lawyer. Six years later — with troll factories and TikTok influencers on his side — Marcos looks set to become president with Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, as his vice president.

That is sobering reality for those wary of the country’s long history of powerful feudal families running roughshod over its politics. “The fear is that rule by two children of strongmen would reinforce a system of patronage, weakening institutions democratic and emphasize that only a’s last name matters,” my colleagues reported.

Is the Philippines ready for another Duterte?

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