The Philippines is known for dismissing despots. But ahead of this year’s presidential election Mong Palatino asks why there is still so much love for the family of a former dictator.
Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines like a dictator for two decades until he was ousted by the ‘People Power’ uprising in 1986.
Three decades later, his wife and children hold elected positions in government. Now, his eldest son and namesake is running for vice president. Many people ask, especially international observers, how did the Marcoses achieve a political comeback in a nation known for deposing corrupt despots?
The Marcos family went into exile in Hawaii in 1986, but their friends, allies, cronies, and subordinates remained in the Philippines and weren’t held accountable for their criminal complicity in implementing the brutal policies of the martial law regime.
Joker Arroyo, the executive secretary of President Cory Aquino who replaced Marcos, noted that the persons who visited the presidential palace to lobby and socialise with the stalwarts of the new ruling party were also Marcos minions. As he told Sunday Inquirer Magazine in 1992,
“When I was still in the Guest House, I asked for the logs which listed those who had visited President Marcos. I compared them with those visiting President Aquino. They were the same people – they came from the same companies, shared the same business views, the same mindset, and they went to the same parties.”
That the Marcoses were able to run for public office again reflects the failure of successive post-1986 regimes to decisively prosecute and arrest those responsible for committing atrocious human rights violations and the plundering of the nation’s wealth. Compared to other notorious dictators of the 1970s, such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina, Marcos was never indicted with criminal charges and his heirs didn’t spend a single day in prison.
Five presidents (including two Aquinos; the incumbent president is the son of Cory Aquino) were unable to recover most of the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth. Imelda, wife of the late dictator and she of the shoes, is one of the richest members of Congress.
If Filipinos mistakenly assume that life during Martial Law was better then part of the blame goes to the post-Marcos governments that restored democratic institutions on one hand but refused to dismantle the rule of oligarchs on the other. Cory, whose family owns one of the largest agricultural estates in the country, passed a land reform law which has several loopholes that allowed landlords to retain control of their vast landholdings.
There were high expectations that People Power would lead to the improvement of the lives of most Filipinos. But post-Marcos governments have fundamentally failed to address poverty, inequality, and corruption. A mere 15 years after the uprising, another president was ousted from power because of corruption.
With post-Marcos leaders turning out to be inferior copies of the original dictator, the Marcoses started winning elections. Imelda became a congresswoman in 1995, and her two children won as governor and congresswoman in 1998. Twelve years later, Bongbong Marcos became a senator of the Republic.
We could interpret Filipinos’ nostalgia for the martial law years as an expression of disgust against those who succeeded Marcos. When some praise the strongman tactics of Marcos, it is commonly described as a desperate longing for peace, stability, and discipline in society. It could also be an indirect condemnation of the incompetent governance of the post-Marcos regimes.
That Bongbong Marcos is leading in some polls, despite the anti-Marcos rhetoric of no less than the incumbent president, is a sign that a segment of the population is seeking to hit back at the ruling party by voting against its sworn enemy. Amid the deteriorating quality of life in the country, despite contrary claims of the government, the high rating of Bongbong should be linked to the growing frustration of many voters to the callousness of some government leaders.
It doesn’t help that the present generation of first- time voters have little or no knowledge of the dark days of Martial Law. Young Filipinos didn’t experience the loss of democracy and civil liberties during the Marcos years. The Philippines doesn’t have a law which makes it a crime to deny that human rights violations were rampant during the reign of Marcos.
It is not simply enough to ask why the Marcoses are back in the political limelight. Equally important is to probe the shameful lack of political will of the post-Marcos governments when it comes to seeking justice, and accountability for the horrors of Martial Law.
The truth is that even if Marcos is the epitome of an evil leader, his sins are not that much different from those committed by his successors in government. Both Marcos and regimes that followed him are liable for perpetuating a deeply flawed, elitist and corrupt political system. Bongbong continues to be unrepentant about the excesses of Martial Law in the same way politicians today are unapologetic for administering an inefficient and unjust political system.
Forgetting the sins of Marcos is unpardonable; but the greater crime is the refusal to put an end to a system of governance designed for the exclusive benefit of big landlords, political dynasties, and business cronies of political parties in power.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices, a social media platform.