Explained: What the coming to power of Bongbong, son of the infamous President Ferdinand Marcos, means for the Philippines and the region

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the ousted former dictator of the Philippines, has won the biggest ever landlide in the presidential elections of the country, marking an extraordinary full circle in its modern political history.

“To the world: Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions,” Marcos Jr was quoted by his spokesman Vic Rodriguez as saying.

Marcos Jr, commonly referred to as Bongbong, has come to power 36 years after the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos was deposed and exiled along with his family in the People Power Revolution. Bongbong Marcos will have as his Vice-President and Minister for Education Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte.

Who are the Marcos family of the Philippines?

Bongbong is the only son of Ferdinand Marcos Sr, who was President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. In 1972, a year before his second term, Marcos Sr introduced martial law and extended greater control over the country. His nearly two-decade-long reign was marked by countless human rights violations, charges of mindboggling corruption, and economic collapse of the country.

According to reports by Amnesty International, around 3,400 Filipinos were tortured, thousands were killed, and even greater numbers were incarcerted. The press was censored, Parliament was suspended, and suspected dissidents were targeted.

While Marco Sr’s official salary never exceeded $13,500 a year, by 1986 when he was ousted by popular protesters, his family had amassed a gigantic fortune. It has been estimated that approximately $10 billion was stolen by the Marcos family from the Filipino people. Levels of corruption were so high that the Philippines will have to repay the accumulated debt from the Marcos era until 2025.

By 1986, a popular revolt had taken shape against his rule, and officials in the administration of President Ronald Reagan of the US, to which the Philippines was allied, warned Marcos to “cut and cut clean”. The family were granted asylum at a military base in Hawaii, where they fled reportedly taking along 22 crates of cash, jewelry worth $4 million, and many bars of gold.

How was Bongbong able to win?

Marcos Jr has previously served as a Vice-Governor, Governor, and Congressman in Ilocos Norte, the Marcos family bastion from the 1980s onward. He joined the Senate in 2010, but narrowly lost the Vice-President’s seat to Leni Robredo in 2016.

Bongbong’s 2022 presidential campaign was muted. He did not participate in any public debate, did not present any real policy alternatives and campaigned on a vague slogan of unity.

It was his use of social media that proved to be most effective. Tik-Tok, Facebook, and YouTube were the primary mediums through which Marcos Jr was able to rehabilitate his family’s history and present his father’s reign as a “golden period” of the country.

His campaigns — widely condemned as misinformation — have been running for decades, and have been especially effective with younger voters who did not see or may not remember the Marcos era, and who typically spend a lot of time on social media.

At least half of the 65 million voters in the Philippines are in the age group of 18-30. They did not directly experience the consequences of the martial law era, and since school textbooks are silent on this period in the history of the Philippines, they often have no memory of the violence that the Marcos government unleashed against its critics.

A committed army of YouTube livestreamers attend Bongbong’s rallies and disseminate his narrative farther. Dubious claims about how his wealth was generated, and the often false claims about his opponents were echoed by his supporters. Marcos’s main rival, Robredo, was painted as a communist who was unable to accomplish anything during her vice-presidency.

A YouTube spokesman has been quoted in the western media as saying that between February 2021 and January 2022, more than 400,000 videos were removed for hate speech, harassment and misinformation. In an interview with the Philippine news site Rappler, Brittany Kaiser, a former employee turned whistleblower of the political data company Cambridge Analytica said that Marcos Jr had approached the company to rebrand the family’s image. Marcos’ campaign team has denied these charges.

Marcos has also gained from the support of outgoing President Duterte’s loyalists. (In the Philippines, Presidents can only serve one 6-year term.) Duterte, who has been condemned internationally for his bloody campaign against the drug mafia, remains popular in the Philippines, and while he never directly endorsed Bongbong, his daughter became the younger Marcos’s running mate for the election.

Why is Marcos’s victory significant?

The coming to power of another Marcos would have been unimaginable when the former President was driven from the country 36 years ago.

As President, Marcos will have huge influence over the government agencies that are seeking to recover the $10 billion stolen during his father’s rule. As Governor and Senator, Marcos made consistent efforts to protect his family’s wealth, and to impede efforts to retrieve what was stolen.

The Marcos family continue to defy court orders and often appeals unfavorable rulings. Imelda Marcos, Bongbong’s 92-year-old mother, is appealing the guilty verdicts passed in seven different corruption charges in 2018; Each conviction carries a prison sentence up to 11 years.

The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) was established in 1986, and its initial mandate was to investigate and retrieve the stolen money by the senior Marcos and his supporters. Till now it has been able to recover $5 billion. As President, Bongbong would be able to extend control over the PCGG, picking commissioners of his liking. He can also appoint the head of the tax office and the Ombudsman, who supervises corruption complaints against the government.

How might the Philippines’ relations with India be impacted?

India has good bilateral relations with the Philippines. In January this year, India and the Philippines signed a $374.96 million deal for the supply of BrahMos shore-based anti-ship supersonic cruise missiles. This was the first export order received by India for the missile.

The Philippines’ relationship with China is multilayered. They have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, and last November, the Philippines accused the Chinese coast guard of blocking and firing water cannons at Philippines supply boats within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

President Duterte tried to improve relations with China. In 2016, he announced the Philippines’ “separation” with the US, an important military ally and declared that he had realigned with China.

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While it is not fully clear how Marcos’s victory would change the country’s relationship with China, he is seen as being friendly towards Beijing, and has been reported to be building a rapport with the Chinese Ambassador in Manila. Vice-President Duterte-Carpio has called for Manila to deal with Beijing bilaterally over the South China Sea disputes.

The possibility of a pro-China leadership in the Philippines will be watched closely by New Delhi. India, along with the US, Australia and Japan, is part of the Quad, the strategic alliance intended to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

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