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The Philippines elected a dictator’s son. Why are dynasties popular?

Ties to a former dictatorship are quite common in new democracies, this research explains

- May 26, 2022

The landslide May 2022 election of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as president of the Philippines has prompted widespread gasps of disbelief. How could the son of a man who killed thousands of people and engaged in staggering levels of corruption during his 21 years of rule (1965-1986) win 59 percent of the vote in a competitive election — all while praising the “genius” of his father?

Surprised? Don’t be. What happened in the Philippines reflects two extremely common phenomena: the democratic election of figures with ties to the authoritarian past, and the influence of democratic dynasties. My research helps explain these dynamics.

From the authoritarian past to the democratic present

While the election of figures with ties to the authoritarian past may be unsettling, it’s a routine part of democratic politics. From the mid-1970s until the first decade of the 2000s, more than 60 countries made the transition to democracy. Yet democratization rarely meant a clean slate. Instead, new democracies were often littered with vestiges of the old regime, whether in the form of constitutions, pockets of undemocratic rule at the subnational level or political parties.

As I have shown in my research, “authoritarian successor parties” were especially common in the democratization process. These were either former authoritarian ruling parties that simply continued to exist, or new parties formed by high-level former authoritarian officials.

Among countries that democratized between 1974 and 2010, nearly three-quarters had a prominent authoritarian successor party — and, remarkably, in over one-half of new democracies, voters returned the party to power in free and fair elections. From Mexico to Mongolia, Poland to Paraguay, Taiwan to Tunisia, voters have sent authoritarian successor parties to the presidency or prime minister’s office.

When voters decide to keep it in the family

Like authoritarian successor parties, democratic dynasties are extremely common. As of this writing, at least six democracies in the world have presidents or prime ministers whose fathers or husbands were presidents or prime ministers before them: Canada, Estonia, Ghana, Honduras, Mauritius and Uruguay.

The world’s two biggest democracies, India and the United States, both have long histories of dynastic politics. In the United States, George W. Bush followed in the presidential footsteps of his father, George H.W. Bush, just as John Quincy Adams did with his father, John Adams. Political families such as the Kennedys and Clintons have been major players — and the end of the Obama and Trump presidencies led to fevered speculation about the possible political futures of former first lady Michelle Obama and several of Donald Trump’s adult children.

In India, dynasties have played an even more outsize role, as best illustrated by the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty — now in its fourth generation. During the first 42 years of the country’s independence, from 1947 to 1989, India’s prime minister hailed from this dynasty for all but five years.

The inheritance of political capital

Why would voters use their newly acquired democratic rights to vote for parties with roots in undemocratic — and often brutal — regimes? And why, in the context of democracy, do voters so often choose leaders on the basis of heredity, the most monarchical of principles?

Scholars such as myself who have studied the first question have found that parties with ties to the old regime often benefit from “authoritarian inheritance.” Whether in the form of business ties, organizational muscle or an association with policy achievements in areas such as the economy or public order, ties to a former dictatorship can be surprisingly beneficial. These inherited benefits may even grow over time, as the often-disappointing performance of new democracies can lead to “authoritarian nostalgia.”

Studies of democratic dynasties likewise point to the role of inherited political capital, albeit of a different sort. Of course, politicians running for reelection often have a leg up on their competitors because of factors such as increased media coverage and control over government spending. But scholars such as Daniel M. Smith argue that such incumbency advantages can also be passed down. Whether in the form of name recognition, networks or political skills gained from observing one’s family member, these “inherited incumbency advantages” can give a candidate a critical boost.

The collision of authoritarian and family ties

Once we take seriously these two forms of inheritance, the election of Marcos Jr. in the Philippines becomes less surprising. While his current party is a recent creation and would not qualify as an authoritarian successor party, Marcos Jr.’s association with the old regime nevertheless appears to have been an asset. Many voters, it seems, have come to view the Marcos dictatorship as a kind of “golden age” — and see the younger Marcos, as the late dictator’s son, as uniquely well qualified to re-create its supposed achievements. Similar calculations probably played a role in the election of children of former dictators in recent decades in countries like Panama, South Korea, Bangladesh and Kenya.

How much of a threat does Marcos Jr.’s election pose to the Philippines’ already-troubled democracy? On the one hand, my research shows that it’s quite rare for the election of an authoritarian successor party to lead to democratic breakdown. On the other hand, in the cases where democracy did break down — the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Nicaragua — it was the former dictator himself who headed the party ticket and who ultimately assumed office.

So which of these two scenarios does the election of the child of a former dictator most resemble? The answer is likely to hinge, in part, on the degree to which we expect children to take after their parents.

If it’s true that the apple never falls far from the tree, then there is good reason to be worried about the Philippines. Not only is the president-elect the son of a former autocrat, but the incoming vice president, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is the daughter of the country’s current strongman, President Rodrigo Duterte. This particular collision of dynastic politics and authoritarian linkages could prove especially corrosive to whatever remains of Philippine democracy.

James Loxton is a senior lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Sydney. He is the author of “Conservative Party-Building in Latin America: Authoritarian Inheritance and Counterrevolutionary Struggle” (Oxford University Press, 2021).