The Man Who Could Ruin the Philippines Forever

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, was convicted of tax evasion. He also lied about his academic degree, according to Oxford University. Victims of his father’s brutal regime — which lasted for 20 years until his ouster in 1986 — accuse the younger Mr. Marcos of whitewashing history.

Yet Mr. Marcos, the unapologetic heir of the family that plundered billions of dollars from us Filipinos, is — absent a major upset — poised to win the presidential election on May 9.

This is possible only because our democracy has long been ailing. Disinformation is rewriting our past and clouding our present. Filipinos are disillusioned with our system of government. And the impunity of family dynasties in politics has gutted its two essential functions: to allow us to fairly choose our leaders and to hold them accountable for how they fail us. The return to power of the Marcoses may deal it the final blow.

It’s heartbreaking to remember what could have been. Thirty-six years ago, Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s “constitutional authoritarianism,” as he described his government, came to an end when his family fled the country after millions of Filipinos united to support Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated senator whose popularity had threatened the regime’s control. We flooded the streets and won back our freedom and, in 1987, wrote a new Constitution to guide our country. Democracy seemed to have repudiated autocracy.

But over the years, our leaders’ broken promises accumulated and led to our disenchantment. Administration after administration was blighted by dysfunction, corruption and injustice. Year after year, our elected representatives refused to pass laws prohibiting political dynasties, despite the fact that our Constitution had tasked them with doing so.

The new millennium eventually brought better governance and much-vaunted economic momentum, yet too many Filipinos remained marginalized. In 2011, for example, a mere 40 individuals reaped more than three-fourths of our country’s wealth increase. And a good part of our country’s economic growth came from the millions of Filipinos who were forced abroad to seek, and remit, their livelihood. All while crime, drugs and inequality persisted across our homeland.

Throughout those three decades of our hard-won democracy, its most vital function — letting the people choose who will represent us — was perverted by entrenched politicians. Call it the dictatorship of dynasties. As of 2019, some 234 families, in a country of nearly 110 million people, held 67 percent of the legislature, 80 percent of governorships and 53 percent of mayoralties.

Our democracy’s other main function — allowing us to hold our leaders accountable — has also been hijacked. When Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency in 2016 by promising to sacrifice democratic freedoms for bullet-fast results against crime and corruption, that came to include the dismantling of checks and balances that could prevent or punish his abuse of power.

Institutions that could hold him to account for the thousands of deaths from his drug war were stacked with lackeys. The coequal branches of the legislature and judiciary were brought under the presidency’s heel. Laws were weaponized to control speech and dissent. The news media was both kicked and muzzled as the public’s watchdog, and orchestrated falsehoods and historical revisionism now inundate the 92 million Filipinos on social media, who get our news mostly online.

In other ways, too, Mr. Duterte is responsible for normalizing authoritarianism, which may be yet another thing Mr. Marcos effortlessly inherits. One of Mr. Duterte’s first actions as president in 2016 was to transfer the elder Mr. Marcos’s preserved corpse from the family’s refrigerated mausoleum for burial in our national cemetery of heroes. And Mr. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, is now campaigning with the younger Mr. Marcos and is the leading candidate for vice president, who is elected separately from the president.

Despite the incumbent’s apparent disdain for Mr. Marcos — Mr. Duterte has implied that he is a weak leader and a drug user — their shared affinities are undeniable as the younger pair promises to continue Mr. Duterte’s grim legacy.

Their popularity indicates that our past fight for democratic freedom has been largely forgotten, with 56 percent of the Filipino voting population now between ages 18 and 41. A 2017 poll found that half of us Filipinos favor authoritarian governance, and an alarming number of us even approve of military rule. Yet the same poll showed that 82 percent of us say we believe in representative democracy. The contradiction seems to overlook what our history teaches about our giving leaders unchecked power.

No wonder we elected Mr. Duterte, who has bragged about being a killer. No wonder we’re poised to re-elect a family of thieves. And no wonder Mr. Marcos thrives as a mythmaker — varnishing himself and his family as harmless underdogs, victims of theft by an untouchable seçkine who stole his vice presidency, his parents’ tenure over our country’s so-called golden age and his family’s right to control their own narrative against what he calls “propaganda” and “fake news.”

Yet even as Mr. Marcos casts himself as the heir to his family’s dynasty, he refuses to acknowledge its many proven crimes, much less be held complicit for his role in defending the dictatorship. He has also pledged to protect Mr. Duterte from the International Criminal Court and has formed a political cartel with the Dutertes and two past presidents, who were both jailed for corruption. Worst of all, he has relentlessly shrugged off the facts of our nation’s history, telling everyone to “move on” from its long struggle against the authoritarianism he and his family led.

But as the present hurtles forward on May 9, the truths of our past matter more than ever. From that history, a martyred writer and our national hero, José Rizal, reminds us: “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.” Yet so many of us have been shackled before by so many of those we freely elected to entrust our future to — from Adolf Hitler to Vladimir Putin to another brazen liar also named Ferdinand Marcos.

Miguel Syjuco, a former contributing Opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of “I Was the President’s Mistress!!: A Novel.”

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