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King’s Votes: Will the Philippines see a return of the Marcos Dynasty?

Roar writer Hanna Pham on the upcoming presidential elections in the Philippines and the fear of the authoritarian Marcos dynasty as part of the ‘King’s Votes’ series.

Presidential elections in the Philippines are nothing short of a spectacle. Typically, presidential elections have a showbiz factor, with candidates working to brand themselves as celebrities. For instance, in the last election in 2016, Duterte branded himself as “Duterte Harry” — a reference to action star Clint Eastwood’s infamous Dirty Harry.

This year, the candidate list includes star-studded names like boxing star Manny Pacquiao, actor and current mayor of Manila Isko Moreno, and most notably Ferdinand ‘BongBong’ Marcos Jr — son of the late and infamous Ferdinand Marcos, former authoritarian dictator of the Philippines. However, behind the campy nature and spectacle of the elections lurks the creeping fear of the reinstation of the Marcos dynasty in national politics.

My lola, grandmother in Tagalog, warns that the Filipino people are wary of having another Marcos in power. For twenty-one years, Marcos ruled over the Philippines with an iron fist. Imposing martial law from 1972 until the end of his presidency in 1986, 3,240 people were murdered, 70,000 were imprisoned, and 34,000 were tortured under his leadership. Marcos and his family burnt through $10 billion, and his wife Imelda’s extensive shoe collection became a symbol of their excessive wealth stolen from the everyday Filipino. The People’s Power revolution ended the rule of Marcos Sr and effectively exiled him and his family to the United States until the 1990s when they were slowly allowed to come back to the Philippines.

And yet, Marcos Jr is the frontrunner in the election. According to a survey from Pulse Asia, a public opinion polling entity in the Philippines that surveyed 2,400 Filipinos, 56% intended to vote for Marcos Jr. As someone in the Filipino diaspora, I find the prospect of another Marcos in power terrifying — so why does he have the lead in the election?

Firstly, his political gains are not exactly genuine. An investigation conducted by Rappler, an esteemed news agency in the Philippines, found that Marcos’s campaign team utilise social media to create misinformation networks about the political legacy of his father to obscure the damage he did to the Philippines and paint the family in a patriotic light. Widely shared chainmail included falsified information that during the rule of Marcos Sr, the first airport was built and that the Philippines was the richest Asian nation.

Most notably, a widely circulated photo of Jollibee, the beloved fast-food chain of the Philippines, portrays the company endorsing Marcos Jr for president. Originally a photo from the opening of the first Spanish Jollibee, the mascot is shown holding a sign that originally said “1st in Spain”. The sign in the doctored image says “BBM [Bong Bong Marcos] 2022”. Before the photo was discovered to be fake, large news agencies in the Philippines like the Inquirer, Philippine Star, and ABS-CBN shared it on their platforms.

Not only has social media been useful to Marcos Jr in rewriting history, but also in romanticising the legacy of his family. His campaign has used Tiktok to revise the history of his family. Given that nearly half of Tiktok users globally are between 18 and 24, and 75% of users are under 34, they have no memory of the authoritarian rule of Marcos Sr, facilitating Marcos Jr’s attempts to paint himself and his family in a positive light.

For instance, one clip with a retro version of Tove Lo’s Habits playing depicts a glamorously dressed Imelda Marcos meeting with Prince Charles. Another TikTok shows various Philippine presidents walking but slows down on Marcos Sr sauntering confidently to Coolio’s A Gangsta’s Parasite, the caption reads: “FEM walk hits different”.

The Inquirer launched an investigation from February 25 to March 25 to monitor the most trending hashtags on Tiktok and found that Marcos Jr’s hashtag #bbm garnered 6.2 billion views. An offshoot of it, #bbm2022 accumulated 1.5 billion views — surpassing hashtags his rivals attempted to make trending. Though his campaign has been dirty, it’s worked to put him in the lead.

While social media may have exacerbated the whitewashing of the authoritarian rule of the Marcos, history books for children have been no better. The martial law era imposed by Marcos Sr is only mentioned on around 10% of history textbook pages for fifth and sixth graders — disproportionately small considering its central place in national history. The outgoing President Duterte has by no means been a champion of democracy, going so far as to state “forget about the law on human rights” and launching a war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives. Yet the possible election of Marcos Jr would completely undermine lessons from the terror his family inflicted on the Philippines, and provide the biggest political space in the country for Marcos Jr to attempt to repeat history.

The Philippines is one of the largest democracies in the world, with 67 million citizens registered to vote in the presidential elections. As an American with Filipina heritage, I don’t have the legal right to vote in the presidential elections. But, for my lola who left her homeland during the terror of Marcos Sr and returned to the Philippines to retire earlier this year, as well as my titos and titas, uncles and aunts, who remember the reign of Marcos Sr, I sincerely hope they do not have to live through another Marcos in power.

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