Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – Unifier or chip off the old block?

Shailaja Neelakantan
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – Unifier or chip off the old block? Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lipa, Batangas province, April 20, 2022.

With victory almost certain in the Philippine general election, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. will become the first Marcos to occupy the Malacañang Palace in Manila since a peaceful “People’s Power” uprising in 1986 toppled his father, one of Asia’s most infamous dictators.

During his campaign for president, Marcos Jr., the 64-year-old only son of Ferdinand E. Marcos and former first lady Imelda Marcos shunned public debates with other contenders and kept his distance from reporters, while preaching the theme of “unity” as the main plank in his electoral platform.

Along the way, he refused to apologize for alleged widespread abuses committed by his namesake father, and during the campaign portrayed his dynastic family’s notorious past as a golden age in Philippine history.

“[T]o all of those who have been with us in this long and sometimes very difficult journey for the last six months ... I want to thank you for all that you have done for us,” he told his supporters at Marcos campaign headquarters on Monday night.

“There are thousands of you out there, volunteers, parallel groups, political leaders that have, that cast their lot with us, because of their belief in our message of unity, because of their belief in the candidate.”

Anyone wondering why Filipinos would elect the son of an iron-fisted ruler blamed for thousands of deaths and plundering his country’s coffers need look no farther than Marcos Jr.'s mother, Imelda, who once said: “Perception is real and the truth is not.”

And while on the campaign trail, Marcos Junior, his critics say, managed to whitewash the perception of his father’s brutal legacy through his judicious use of social media – by employing legions of keyboard warriors to paint Marcos Senior as the best president the country ever had.

Bongbong, as he is popularly known, or BBM (for Bongbong Marcos), nostalgically refers to his father’s rule as a golden era and has called his mother “the best politician I’ve ever seen” – opinions that many Filipinos seem to now share.

By extension, then, he has made his campaign all about uniting the country, implying that the opposition was doing otherwise – also a position that a majority of those who eventually became voted for him seemed to buy into.

Marcos Jr. was around 28 when the entire clan was forced to flee the country 36 years ago, ending Marcos Senior’s 21-year rule.

It later emerged that Ferdinand E. Marcos had stolen more than U.S. $10 billion from the nation’s coffers and his wife Imelda had amassed a collection of some 3,000 designer shoes, as well as racks upon racks overflowing with luxury gowns and clothes – many with their labels still on them.

Bongbong’s father died in Hawaii three years later. Imelda and the children were allowed to return home in 1991.

Since then, Marcos Jr, has served as governor, congressman and senator. In 2016, Marcos Jr. ran for vice-president but narrowly lost to Leni Robredo who he has a huge lead against as of Tuesday evening in the May 9 general election.

Bongbong did not graduate from college but has a “special diploma” in social studies from Oxford University, and in the 1970s attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps but worried about him, according to Senior’s diary entries from June1972 widely reported in the media.

“Bongbong is our principal worry. He is too carefree and lazy.

“[T]he boy must get character. …The boy must realize his weakness – the carefree wayward ways that may have been bred in him,” Ferdinand E. Marcos reportedly wrote in his diary.


President Ferdinand Marcos (second from left) poses with his wife Imelda Marcos (center) and their children, Imelda (right), Ferdinand Junior (left), and Irene, in Manila, Jan. 18, 1972. [AP File Photo]

According to one expert on Philippine politics, Bongbong was well positioned to win big in the May 9 election, because his campaign got a boost from his vice-presidential running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, the mayor of Davao City and the popular daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, the incumbent president who is leaving office due to term limits. Duterte-Carpio, in fact, had been widely expected to declare her own run for president in 2022.

“Lest we forget, the reason why Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is there is not because of his personal achievements, it’s also not necessarily because his father was the best president we ever had as some people want it. It’s because he’s part of a tandem, The Duterte-Marcos axis,” Richard Javad Heydarian, of De La Salle University in Manila, said during a webinar last week.

Heydarian noted that Marcos started in third place in polls before the campaigns began. His climb in the polls “comes from Sara Duterte who actually was the leading candidate in pre-election surveys.

Observers said Marcos likely would protect Rodrigo Duterte from investigations into the thousands of killings linked to the drug war, including by the International Criminal Court, when he leaves office and loses immunity from prosecution.

While Marcos Jr. has vowed to continue the war on drugs, he has said he would do it differently and with fewer killings.

Fears for a free press

Meanwhile, another analyst, Sam Chittick of the Asia Foundation, also noted that through his campaign Marcos Jr. gave the media no access, any interviews he granted were very controlled and he participated in no debates.

Journalists and media observers had also noted that Marcos Jr. had been the least open of all the 10 candidates in the race. However, he had defended himself recently in a television interview, wondering why journalists were complaining about the lack of access to him, when videos of journalists struggling to get near him had circulated widely online.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) said last week that these were signs that a Marcos victory would not bode well for the fourth estate.

“All these restrictive actions undermine a critical and free press in an Asian bulwark of democracy and have sparked fears on how independent media would be treated under another possible Marcos presidency,” FOCAP said.

It is for reasons such as these that many analysts called Monday’s election a watershed one for the Philippines. 

“I have called this not once – I think multiple times – as the most consequential election in Philippine history at least since 1969,” analyst Heydarian said, referring to an election that then-incumbent Marcos Sr. won a few years before he declared martial law in 1972.

Heydarian said he feared Marcos may push to amend the constitution, but he didn’t elaborate.

“He can set the tone for Philippine politics for a generation to come,” Heydarian said.


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