When Filipinos take to the polls on Monday, they'll be voting not only on the country's future, but also its past.
The runaway favorite to win the presidency carries a familiar family name: Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr., best-known by his nickname, Bongbong.
Marcos Jr. is the eldest of three children to former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his second wife, Imelda. Marcos the elder was driven into exile by the People Power Revolution in 1986 after two decades in power, during which thousands of his enemies vanished, and billions disappeared.
Marcos literally set the Guinness World Record for corruption and plunder, the "Greatest robbery of a government," having stolen somewhere between US$5 billion and US$10 billion from the state coffers. The record stood for three decades on the Guinness site, as I relayed in a February column - but was erased on March 10, presumably under pressure from the supporters of Bongbong Marcos.
It's exactly this kind of revisionism that has been so successful, particularly via social media, during the Bongbong Marcos campaign. Guinness explained to the Philippines media that it has "re-examined" the record, as it does with all records, to make sure they're verified by independent sources. The Presidential Commission on Good Government in the Philippines, which has cited the US$5 billion to US$10 billion figure, says it has now recovered US$5 billion, with another US$2.4 billion still caught up in the courts. It's verified.
However, if he wins, Marcos Jr., now 64, will essentially be in charge of the continuation of that effort to recover the dictator's ill-gotten gains. He has waged a highly successful information war, largely on social media, to erase his father's wrongdoings.
Bongbong Marcos holds a 56% approval rate in the race for the presidency, according to the most-recent poll by PulseAsia, way ahead of second-place Leni Robredo, with 23%. In seeking the six-year term, Bongbong is drawing on the pulling power of the current incumbent, President Rodrigo Duterte, who claims to be retiring from politics - but whose elder daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is the running mate as vice president on the Marcos ticket. Duterte-Carpio also looks set for a comfortable win, with 55% support to 18% for her nearest challenger.
There's another familiar name lower down the polls. Boxing legend Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao, who entered politics even while he was still in the ring, is a distant third for the presidency in the polls, with 7% support.
A human-rights lawyer, Robredo, 56, narrowly beat Bongbong Marcos in 2016 to the post of vice president, who is elected in a separate vote from the president. She has the support of many in the Manila business establishment - in an open letter, 273 economists backed her candidacy - but crucially, not the young voting public spread across 7,100 islands. The party she leads is linked to the movement that drove Marcos from power.
Using a familiar playbook, Bongbong Marcos variously calls the slights against his father's name "fake news," irrelevant, or in doubt, in the hands of the courts. The Marcos clan has fought a deliberately drawn-out legal battle to overturn suits against his father's estate, his mother and his family. They've ignored court orders against them, appealed rulings - and are still defendants in at least 40 civil suits surrounding their wealth. Imelda, now 92, is appealing a 2018 conviction for corruption, and herself ran unsuccessfully for president, twice.
Bongbong recently called his father a "political genius," and will be in charge of the Presidential Commission on Good Government pursuing cases against his family, should he win the presidency. We can only imagine how quickly those investigations will be dropped.
Bongbong told a radio show in March that the commission was set up as an "anti-Marcos agency," but that once he is in charge, "we could turn it into a real anti-corruption agency." His enemies better take note.
While Twitter TWTR and Meta Platforms (FB) have suspended hundreds of pro-Marcos accounts for spreading falsehoods, wild claims have continued to spread widely on social media that are suspiciously beneficial to Bongbong and his cause. The Marcos family has long insisted that the origin of the family's fortune came from smart gold trading even before the dictator came to power.
One outlandish rumor shared on FB states that the descendants of the Tallano royal family that once ruled much of the country gave Marcos a share of the 640,000 metric tons of gold that Marcos and a priest recovered from the Vatican. It's a ridiculous claim. Only 205,238 tons of gold have been mined in human history, according to the World Gold Council. But Internet searches for "Tallano" surged during the presidential campaign.
Imelda Marcos has also claimed that her husband discovered the mythical loot plundered around Southeast Asia by the Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, then hidden underground before American troops arrived. Rodrigo Duterte even said on taking office that the Marcos family was ready to return "a few gold bars" to help ease the budget deficit. It hasn't happened.
Bongbong Marcos only started to deny the existence of a gold-bar fortune when he started running for the presidency. Despite those denials, there are numerous social-media posts stating that the Marcos family, should he win, will devote much of its fortune to the state.
In my unofficial poll with a sample size of one, my family's helper from the Philippines tells me she supports Marcos because he and his father have done so many good works, building roads and bridges. She also believes Bongbong Marcos will use his personal wealth in giveaways to the public and the state. What about all that corruption and plunder, I ask? Well, yes, maybe that happened, she says, perhaps. But there's so much in her FB feed, where she gets her news, about all the good stuff Bongbong has been doing, and will do. She's seen a lot of posts that make Robredo look silly, too.
The Philippines was considered the most-promising of the "Asian tigers" coming out of World War II. With a large English-speaking workforce, U.S.-style regulatory systems and Western-oriented culture, it seemed poised for a post-war boom.
That all got sidetracked by mismanagement and corruption. When Marcos fled to Hawaii, the Philippines economy was on its knees. The economy shrank 7.32% in 1984, and then another 7.31% in 1985, causing the kind of incredible unrest that drove a dictator out of office. Marcos died in exile in 1989, and the family returned in 1991 to repair their legacy.
It's worked. Ask around now, and you'll be told that the economy was in great shape back then, a golden age of building bridges, roads and other essential infrastructure. Social-media revisionism has been highly successful in erasing the black mark that was the Marcos regime. Half the electorate in this nation of 110 million are under the age of 40. The dictatorship means nothing in an era with the collective memory of a TikTok post.
Bongbong Marcos has avoided virtually any form of presidential debate that could raise ugly questions about the past, and his plans, preferring to communicate through social media. Amnesty International estimates 70,000 people went to prison under the elder Marcos, around half of them were tortured, and 3,240 were killed. Although Amnesty published two extensive reports, Bongbong Marcos says he doesn't know how the human-rights group came up with the numbers, and that they need to "share that information," so that "what alleged abuses occurred should not occur again."
While Bongbong Marcos has focused on "unity," pandemic recovery and public-spending programs in his campaign, it's the service sector that's the future for the Philippines. The fastest-growing sectors in the Covid recovery are human health and social work (up 14.1%), construction (up 10.0%), and information and communication (up 9.2%). Manufacturing may be next (up 8.8%) but education (8.3%), hotels and food service (7.2%), logistics (up 6.3%), professional and business services (up 6.2%), all rank high in the list of priorities.
The Filipino economy grew 5.7% in 2021, according to figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority, gathering pace at the end of the year with a 7.8% rate in Q4. We'll hear how Q1 has gone on May 12, though we've already got an indication that the progress has continued with the jobless rate falling to 5.8% in March, down substantially from the 7.1% in March 2021.
Philippines politics focuses on personalities over policy. Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte-Carpio have the pulling power that looks set to propel them into office. Let's hope the new president is able to carry the country forward, as much as he would like it to forget the lessons of its past.