Reviews | Bongbong Marcos win in the Philippines sends warning of authoritarian nostalgia
One of the New Jersey properties, in Cherry Hill, was where his son, namesake and likely next president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., lived while attending the University of Pennsylvania.
These documents became the roadmap for me and my Post colleague Dale Russakoff in trying to unravel the confusing maze of shell companies and holding companies that controlled the hundreds of millions of dollars – some put the figure as high as $10 billion. – that Marcos and his wife, Imelda, flew to the Philippines for two brutal decades.
Massive corruption was only part of his sordid legacy. There was martial law, suspension of due process, widespread imprisonment of opposition leaders and dissidents, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions known as “rescue”.
When I moved to Manila later in 1986 to open the post office there, I found a new democracy struggling to take root and a people still trying to overcome the trauma of the Marcos years. A handful of his red-shirted stalwart followers showed up for a weekly protest near the US Embassy, demanding the dictator’s return from exile. Some of his buddies have retained positions of influence. But Filipinos seemed ready to embrace their democratic rights and move on from Marcos’ mismanagement.
So when I returned to the country a decade later, it was with some shock that I found a sort of rekindled nostalgia for the strong old man.
The economy was growing, foreign investment was flowing in, democratic institutions had been restored, and the country had achieved a peaceful transition of power. President Corazon C. Aquino, whose “People Power” movement overthrew Marcos in 1986, was replaced by Fidel V. Ramos, the former commander of the armed forces who had previously led the military mutiny that allowed popular protests to to succeed.
But the country was still steeped in abject poverty, corruption remained endemic, and promises of land reform and a fairer distribution of wealth had proved futile. Little of Marcos’ stolen wealth had been returned. Foreign correspondents like me praised the country’s successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. For many ordinary Filipinos, very little had changed – and many worried about having enough to eat and were already longing for the good old days when things seemed to be better.
Misplaced nostalgia coupled with amnesia seems to be what caused a sizable majority of Filipino voters to turn to Marcos’ son, known as “Bongbong” Marcos, for what now amounts to something like a family catering. With most votes counted early Tuesday morning, he had a two-to-one lead over his closest rival, according to unofficial results.
Most young voters today have no vivid memories of the horrors of the martial law era or the massive nationwide looting of the country’s resources. What their parents or grandparents tell them, or what they see on the candidate’s whitewashed social media accounts, is that the Philippines under Marcos was a golden age.
I shouldn’t be surprised. I have already seen it.
In Indonesia, Prabowo Subianto – the former son-in-law of the late autocratic President Suharto – was the head of the army’s special forces unit called Kopassus, which was implicated in human rights abuses including kidnappings and torture. He is now the country’s defense minister and a likely presidential favorite for the next election in 2024. In the last election, in 2019, he finished second with 44.5% of the vote, despite his checkered past and being banned the United States. for 20 years.
In Egypt, the Arab Spring toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Shortly after, Egyptian friends complained to me about rampant crime and chaos under his short-lived successor, Mohamed Morsi. And the collapse of the Soviet Union briefly turned Russia into a messy and noisy democracy under Boris Yeltsin. But Russians today only remember the economic chaos, the collapse of the currency and the rise of the oligarchs who plundered the spoils of the state.
First a foreign correspondent, I often saw popular uprisings bringing democracy as the end of the story. What I learned is that for many people, democracy means nothing if it does not bring significant changes in their daily lives.
In difficult economic times, nostalgia and amnesia may be more powerful motivators than concerns about democratic institutions and safeguards. This is what propelled Bongbong Marcos to his overwhelming lead in the crowded presidential race in the Philippines.
Americans worried about a return of Donald Trump have better watch out.