By Daniel Moss
In the days following the landslide victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., friends and colleagues in the US and Europe with memories of his father's kleptocracy asked me how this could have happened. With all the forces working in Marcos’s favor, a more pertinent query might be: What was going to stop it?
If you spent time before the Philippines’s presidential election in the Manila area, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Marcos’s chief opponent, Leni Robredo, would waltz into office. She appeared to have the support of the urban professional class, civil-society advocates, students and portions of the business elite. Her last rally, in the financial district, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. In tony neighborhoods, like White Plains in Quezon City, Robredo posters far outnumbered those for Bongbong, as Marcos is known. (I was reminded of Brooklyn, where I lived during the 2016 US election, with its Hillary Clinton paraphernalia.) Drive an hour or so north and the picture changed dramatically. A massive truck dealership along a highway sported Bongbong billboards along the length of its roof – a political marker as much as the geographic end of the Manila exurbs.
Like the 2016 US election, the lead-up to Bongbong’s win was influenced by a formidable social media machine, one that sought to sanitize the autocratic rule of his father. Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, was forced to flee in 1986 amid a popular uprising, deep recession, debt spiral and the erosion of U.S. support for his regime. “They presented fake news and revisionist history,” Robredo voter Mark Domingo, 42, told me after the extent of the Marcos landslide became clear. He held the hand of his wife, Amor, as they sat in a volunteer compound expressing ire for Meta Platform Inc.’s Facebook and TikTok Inc. Social media companies “have ruined the Philippines,” he said.
At the same time, Marcos, unlike Trump, led a disciplined campaign. He shied away from direct engagement with the media, leaving image promotion to social media – Filipinos are among the world's most active users — and scripted campaign events.
In fact, the Marcos’s campaign was light on policy specifics, which reduced the chances he’d trip. It also allowed people to project onto him what they wished, and conversely, gave him an opportunity to gin up nostalgia for glory days that never existed. The strategy worked for a range of reasons. While gross domestic product surged at the start of the year, the pandemic recession was a deep one that’s left lasting trauma. The nation has one of the youngest populations in Asia, something normally considered a plus. It also means a big cache of voters either weren’t alive or were very young when Marcos Sr. ruled with an iron fist and looted state coffers. When his epic flaws are pointed out, many fans shrug and say it means nothing to them, or worse, claim it’s fake news.
China’s role in the Philippines also has become a double-edged sword. While Beijing has helped bankroll much-needed new infrastructure, its reach into the South China Sea has hurt coastal communities that earned their livelihoods on the water for generations. During a visit in 2019, I met fishermen who claimed Marcos’s father brought strength and respect to their country. China wouldn’t dare push them around if he were still alive and in power, they asserted.
Bongbong deftly tapped into this angst on social media. But he also benefited from the careful construction of allegiances with regional political bosses. His family is from northern Luzon, the biggest and most populous island. His running mate, Sara Duterte, who’s also the daughter of the outgoing president, drew support from the southern stronghold of Mindanao, where she was a mayor (like her father).
Religion, too, came through for Bongbong and Duterte. In the Philippines, faith means mainly Christianity, particularly Catholicism — before its American administration, the country had been a Spanish colony for three centuries. While the Catholic Church played a huge role in rallying opposition to Marcos’s father, its influence is in relative decline. Prevalent now are American-style megachurches, as well as congregations that appear to resemble conservative evangelical groups. Iglesia Ni Cristo, which disdains the Catholic Church, is the most prominent. It threw its weight behind Bongbong and did the same for Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.
INC, as it is known, demands complete obedience from its members — and delivers bloc votes to candidates it endorses. Founded in the early 20th century, the group has grown in stature and influence over the past few decades, along with peers. “Though comprising a small minority dwarfed by the Catholic Church, these churches have been able to mobilize financial and electoral power through careful organization and disciplined pastoral teaching,” John Choo, Evelyn Tan and Daniel P.S. Goh, wrote in a 2020 report for the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. (INC endorsed the successful presidential runs of Benigno S. Aquino III in 2010 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004, suggesting an ability to spot winners and shape them.)
In the end, Marcos’s triumph was driven by several mutually reinforcing factors, from the urban-rural divide and the electoral weight of religious fault lines, to economic lopsidedness and perceptions of identity. These themes, of course, are recognizable beyond the Philippines, having propelled the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the likely return of Republican control of Congress in November. But while historical parallels make the outcome seem all but inevitable, the disappointment among Marcos’s opponents underline the benefit of hindsight.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the crushing size of Bongbong’s victory sank in, Robredo supporters gathered at a volunteer center in central Manila. They shed a few quiet tears, sang, held hands and nibbled at some comfort takeout from McDonalds. That contrasted with the wild scenes outside Marcos's headquarters. There, less than an hour earlier, a writhing crowd of flag-waving, cheering supporters – few of whom wore face masks, which are still required – crowded around your columnist, shouting and gesticulating. They blocked traffic and climbed on cars.
That ephemeral moment could portend a much longer legacy. The Philippines limits presidents to single six-year terms, a product of the post-1986 constitutional overhaul designed to prevent another dictatorship. Will the machine that delivered Bongbong to the top job outlast him? Sara Duterte and her backers may well be counting on it.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for economics. @Moss_Eco