Marcos victory no surprise
This week saw the people of the Philippines elect the son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to power — paving the way for the return of the Marcos clan into the halls of Malacanang Palace some 36 years after they were chased out of it during the People’s Power Revolution.
Many watched in awe at the apparent amnesia that struck the archipelago. After all, how could Philippine voters — many of whom were alive when (or at least, aware of how) Marcos Sr’s 20-year rule came to end — back Bongbong, as Ferdinand Marcos Jr is more commonly known as, given his family’s history of murder and plunder? Did they not remember the excesses of Imelda Marcos, the other half of the infamous conjugal dictatorship, the inspiration behind the adjective “imeldific” — meaning ‘ostentatiously extravagant, sometimes to the point of vulgarity’?
Does this mean, when it comes to politics in the region, some sins are more forgivable than others? Or worse — does this mean democracy has no place in Southeast Asia, given the region’s tendency to vote in hardliners with an apparent disdain for due processes?
It is tempting to see what transpired in the Philippines and conclude that democracy has suffered a significant backslide in Southeast Asia — that free elections may not necessarily lead to a positive outcome. Mr Marcos himself is riding on the coattails of a firebrand figure in the form of Rodrigo Duterte — known for his ruthless war on drugs which saw countless summarily executed on the streets over suspected ties to narcotics gangs. Mr Duterte too, was voted in by an overwhelming majority — and despite his crass public persona, he managed to maintain a high approval rating throughout his tenure.
Yes, it may be tempting to conclude that democracy has no place in Southeast Asia. After all, with the return of Umno in Malaysia, a rumoured attempt at a third term by Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, and the PAP’s continued dominance in Singapore, there are no more “healthy” democracies remaining in the region.
But instead of lamenting its death, perhaps we would be better served by a moment of deep reflection. In a system where people have the power to freely choose their own leader, what would drive them to vote for a candidate who threatens to roll back hard-won democratic progresses — which in the case of Southeast Asia, was more often than not forged by gunpowder and bloodshed?
The answer is disillusionment with democracy over the lack of progress under elected leaders. While the constitution that was drawn up shortly after the fall of the elderly Marcos regime has resulted in mostly free elections, the Philippines did not manage to shake off its status as the “sick man of Asia” in the decades which followed the People’s Power Revolution. The resource-rich country was so plagued by corruption and mismanagement that it regularly trailed behind its neighbours economically. For instance, it took Philippines twice as long as Indonesia to quadruple its GDP per capita figure in 1990, despite the latter having almost twice as many people and suffering worse during the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis.
As elections after elections produced, at best, mediocre leaders with little to show for, it was no surprise that Filipino voters decided to vote for Mr Marcos. Growing up he probably had little role to play in plundering the state’s billions, but his parents — as convicted by courts at home as well as in the United States — took more than enough to ensure the clan’s legacy will live on long after they pass on.
Imelda Marcos, for instance, didn’t just use the central bank as her shopping account and Philippine Airlines 747s as her private transport — she also built various public amenities during her time as Minister of Human Settlements and Mayor of Metro Manila. While her motive for building the Philippine Heart Center, Lung Center and other facilities fit for a modern state were questionable, without a doubt her efforts have paid off in ways which the clan’s rivals — who do not have the luxury of bypassing the red tape like the Marcoses did — will find it hard to compete.
When coupled with the extreme brand of historical revisionism that they are accused of espousing, the result is an alarming shift of narrative. In the weeks leading up to the poll, Marcos supporters who weren’t even born when martial law was in effect trumpeted how “efficiently” the regime ran the country — without acknowledging the human cost throughout the Marcoses’ 20-year stay in power.
That said, there is no use in crying over spilt milk. The nation has decided and just like how the US had to live with its decision to vote in Donald Trump in 2017, the Philippines will have to contend with having another Marcos in Malacanang. The opposition will now have to work harder to ensure voters that change is indeed possible — and that democracy does not equal stagnation and continued suffering.