Leader Marcos Jr.’s stamina has colonial roots

With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ineligible for re-election, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., widely known as “Bongbong”, is poised for a landslide victory at the polls on May 9. His father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled as dictator for 14 years under martial law, was known for his big infrastructure projects but also for his huge corruption. (The World Bank estimates he stole between $5 billion and $10 billion during his reign.) Marcos Jr., in turn, was charged with corruption and convicted of tax evasion.

So what explains the popularity of Marcos Jr. despite his legacy of malfeasance? Like voters around the world, Filipinos say they don’t support corruption. In fact, 86% of Filipinos surveyed in 2020 by Transparency International rated corruption in government as a big problem. A famous scandal involved members of Congress funneling money to bogus non-governmental organizations in exchange for bribes in what is widely known as the pork barrel scam and came to light in July 2013. Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman and the convicted ringleader of the scheme, claimed that Marcos Jr. was involved, although he denied knowledge and said his signature on the forms releasing from the money for bogus NGOs was falsified.

In a political system dominated by powerful families, corrupt politicians can still succeed. Dynasties are so influential that they have largely replaced political parties as the foundation of Philippine politics. Politicians usually hop from party to party, making party labels meaningless. In a country where parties come and go overnight, voters look to families to assess candidates.

With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ineligible for re-election, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., widely known as “Bongbong”, is poised for a landslide victory at the polls on May 9. His father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled as dictator for 14 years under martial law, was known for his big infrastructure projects but also for his huge corruption. (The World Bank estimates he stole between $5 billion and $10 billion during his reign.) Marcos Jr., in turn, was charged with corruption and convicted of tax evasion.

So what explains the popularity of Marcos Jr. despite his legacy of malfeasance? Like voters around the world, Filipinos say they don’t support corruption. In fact, 86% of Filipinos interrogates in 2020 by Transparency International called corruption in government a big problem. A famous scandal involved members of Congress who funneled money to bogus non-governmental organizations in exchange for bribes in what is widely known as pork barrel scam and which came to light in July 2013. Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman and the convicted ringleader of the scheme, claimed that Marcos Jr. was involved, although he denied knowledge and said his signature on forms releasing money for bogus NGOs was forged. .

In a political system dominated by powerful families, corrupt politicians can still succeed. Dynasties are so influential that they have largely replaced political parties as the foundation of Philippine politics. Politicians usually hop from party to party, making party labels meaningless. In a country where parties come and go overnight, voters look to families to assess candidates.

Over the past four years, I have examined the impact of political dynasties on election results in the Philippines and analyzed the results of 10 election cycles since 1992 involving 500,000 candidates. The findings may help explain the Marcos family’s political stamina. Although driven from the country when Marcos Sr. fell from power in 1986, the family regained a political place in just a few years: Marcos Jr. became governor in 1998 and senator in 2010. Imee Marcos then took her former governorship and is currently a senator, having been replaced as governor by her own son Matthew Manotoc in 2019.

My research shows that when given a choice, Filipino voters are less likely to vote for corrupt politicians. After controlling for a previously incumbent candidate – since incumbents are more likely to be re-elected and more likely to face corruption charges – candidates indicted for corruption are 5-7% less likely to be elected. This is similar to how voters react to corruption in other countries. In Brazil, which also suffers from significant corruption, researchers Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan watch that in the 2004 election, when there was evidence that a mayor had engaged in corruption on one occasion, that mayor was 4.6% less likely to be re-elected.


A supporter holds photos of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his wife Imelda Marcos as Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte-Carpio take part in a campaign rally in Caloocan, the Philippines, February 19.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

But Filipino voters do not punish politicians from major political dynasties even when they have been charged with corruption. Ronald Mendoza and researchers from the Ateneo School of Government calculated that in 2019, 80% of governors, 67% of members of the House of Representatives and 53% of mayors had at least one parent in office. These wealthy and powerful family networks can protect politicians from real accountability and keep reform at bay.

The history of the Filipino elite – and why voters continue to maintain their power – has colonial roots. When the United States took control of the Philippines in 1898, it pledged to give land to the poor. The opposite happened. The United States spent $7 million—almost as much as it paid for Alaska in the 1860s—to buy land from Catholic brethren who had ruled much of the country. But the land was sold at prices well above what the poor could afford. The United States also instituted a system of land titles. This might have helped protect poor farmers from dispossession, but land titles were so expensive and complicated to acquire that only the better-off got them. The rich were able to buy more land, while the poor were left without titles or access to the best land. My research shows that areas of the Philippines with more land inequality and where more of these titles were issued in 1918 have a higher concentration of dynasties today.

The United States created a system where only landowners could vote, limiting the franchise to 1% of the population in the 1907 legislative elections. Wealthy landowners appointed allies to run the civil service and adopted laws to consolidate their power. For example, in 1912, the Philippine Assembly made it a crime to breach a contract of employment, which effectively forced sharecroppers to stay on large plantations. Don Joaquín Ortega was appointed as the first governor of La Union in 1901, and 120 years later his descendants are still governors.

Voters look to political dynasties for a variety of reasons. Familiarity certainly helps. The families are also known to have delivered hog barrel projects and even direct payments ahead of the election. Buying votes as gifts or cash is common in the Philippines. Some dynasties also used force to gain votes of limited competition. In return, the ruling families tend to order populist projects. Jinggoy Estrada, son of former President Joseph Estrada, helped build day care centers when he was mayor of San Juan. He was also twice charged with corruption but never convicted.

The youth of the Filipino population contributes to obscuring the truth about the Marcos dictatorship. About 70% are under 40, compared to 51% in the United States. Marcos Sr. was forced to resign 36 years ago, long before much of the electorate was born. Few have a memory of martial law.

Over the years, the Marcos clan has embellished its image: Marcos Jr. appeared as a child in a film glorifying his father. Her older sister ran a children’s television show when Marcos Sr. was in power. Marcos Sr. projected an air of power and pride that older voters remember. Additionally, current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gave the clan a boost in 2016 when he had Marcos Sr. reinterred in the “Heroes’ Cemetery” in Manila.

Marcos Jr.’s campaign also appeals to the nostalgia of voters who lived when Marcos Sr. built new railroads, cultural centers, hospitals and other infrastructure projects, as well as young voters who were sold on this sanitized image. of the Marcos era. Some refer to the period of martial law as a period of peace (but not for the 34,000 political dissidents that Amnesty International estimates were tortured by the government). The Philippine economy grew rapidly for much of the Marcos period, although it resulted in a sharp decline in GDP and a huge increase in public debt.

The other leading candidates running against Marcos Jr. don’t come from such prominent families with such deep political ties. Marcos Jr. avoided saying much about his opponents who attacked him and his Marcos revisionist history. It made campaign all around him and left his opponents looking small. Marcos Jr. also played his alliance with the Duterte family, as incumbent president remains widely popular despite the brutal violence of his anti-drug campaign. Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is running for vice president, further cementing a Duterte-Marcos alliance.

Over generations, the Philippines’ deep-rooted political dynasties have hollowed out the political process, making elections not on parties or ideas, but on surnames. Powerful families date back to the Spanish period and cemented their grip on power. While voters are adamantly opposed to corruption, they continue to support families who spend pork but do little for the long-term health of the country. Marcos Jr. traded on the carefully curated nostalgia of his father’s reign to propel himself to the presidency.

Edward K. Thompson