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Filipinos don’t long for the Marcos era. Why is his son in the lead?

Many voters have grown disenchanted with democracy, my research finds.

- May 5, 2022

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., appears on track to win the presidential election Monday in the Philippines. Marcos is leading the field by over 30 percentage points.

Bongbong Marcos is the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose ouster in 1986 by the “People Power” movement inaugurated the country’s democratization.

On the face of it, the popularity of Bongbong Marcos is puzzling, given the scandals dogging him, including the failure of efforts to recover billions of dollars of ill-gotten wealth amassed during his father’s rule, billions more in unpaid taxes and the ability of his mother, Imelda, to avoid prison time despite being convicted of graft. Pundits point out that Marcos enjoys the support of younger Filipinos with no first-hand experience of the martial law period, while disinformation spreads readily through social media platforms. And, of course, they note the country’s history of dynastic politics.

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These explanations aren’t without merit, but my research suggests that we also need to consider how Filipinos’ attitudes toward democracy are changing. The Marcos family’s return to power would mark the end of an era, and the evaporation of faith in the promise of liberal democracy. This faith used to be palpable.

The emotional arc of democracy

A giant fiesta kicked off the end of martial law and the beginning of the modern democratic era in the Philippines, as the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos brought dancing in the streets. People were euphoric. They felt equal to the lofty tasks of state- and nation-building that lay ahead.

Disappointment followed — not just once but repeatedly. Many Filipinos found democracy tumultuous and frustrating, my research finds. In the country’s past 36 years of democratic rule, there have been a dozen coup attempts, dozens of corruption scandals, three impeachment attempts and one impeachment trial. Mass protests led to the toppling of another president, and the near-removal of his successor by an even more massive protest movement. Philippine politics include enough drama — scandals, betrayals, reversals, exposés — to rival the most riveting telenovelas.

There have also been repeated attempts to realize the promise of 1986. Another people power movement in 2001 resulted in the removal of populist President Joseph Estrada and the accession of his vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Arroyo herself became the target of people power protests nearly a decade later. The election of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in 2010 was in large part a repudiation of Arroyo’s legacy of corruption.

But people have become increasingly frustrated at the failure of liberal measures to transform the country’s dysfunctional democracy. Many Filipinos have come to believe that they cannot change democracy by relying on the constitution, Congress, the courts, government agencies or the “parliament of the streets” — people power. They have learned through experience that these institutions are limited or can be hijacked, and thus are exploring other, decidedly less liberal avenues of political renovation.

The return of the strongman

This string of leadership failures led many Filipinos to turn away from the promise of liberal democracy and reject people power as a means of achieving it. And it encouraged an orientation toward a different sort of political intervention — in the form of a “strong leader” standing above and against traditional politics.

That leader was Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016 not just out of disappointment with the previous Aquino administration, but also in reaction to multiple disappointments over the course of the democratic period. He fashioned himself a strongman in the mold of the elder Marcos, whom he openly admired.

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Duterte prosecuted a ruthless drug war involving several thousand killings, persecuting opponents and critics, and cowing the media and watchdog agencies into submission. Filipinos didn’t necessarily approve of Duterte’s methods — but many were impressed by his show of will. Although uneasy about his tactics, many seem satisfied with his administration overall.

The conversation on democracy was turning. Survey data, for instance, showed how attitudes toward various authoritarian forms of government were changing. These surveys revealed Filipinos were becoming increasingly open to rule by a strong leader, the military, or experts or to elections limited to one party. Indeed, a majority in every survey approved of at least one of these “authoritarian options.”

These trends broadened under Duterte’s administration. As of the latest survey in 2018, support for every single option had increased — and 72 percent of the 47,000 people surveyed endorsed at least one authoritarian option. In other words, it was not just the case that attitudes toward democracy prefigured Duterte’s election, but that these attitudes were reconfigured in light of Duterte’s administration. While many Filipinos remain opposed to Duterte’s strongman tactics, it would seem that in general Filipinos have developed a taste for illiberal rule. This no doubt plays into their willingness to countenance another Marcos.

Democratic backsliding?

Some scholars call what’s happening in the Philippines democratic backsliding — but that’s not quite accurate. Filipinos are not sliding back from some golden age of democracy. If anything, many people consider the early period of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos to be the golden age.

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As my research has shown, they remember the early martial law period in the mid-1970s as a time when “discipline” prevailed. And those who are too young to remember this period grew up hearing how much better life was then than it is now. This is not just a matter of collective forgetting or “authoritarian nostalgia” — the nostalgia, in any case, is less for authoritarianism than for the order that came with it — but of reevaluation and reimagining the political horizon. This is not backsliding but disenchantment with the liberal vision of democracy, which Filipinos have known only as elite democracy.

Disenchantment with democracy — and the desire to renovate it — is hardly unique to the Philippines. The citizens of developing economies from India to Indonesia have been complaining about the conduct of democratic politics for several decades now. Many reject its clientelist, elite and populist character and repudiate the whole business of politics as corrupt. The illiberal turn is a reckoning with the soured promises of democracy’s third wave, after the Philippines and dozens of countries transitioned to democracy.

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Marco Garrido is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. His research looks at social transformations in the Global South, including disenchantment with democracy in the Philippines and elsewhere.