Anytime I hear mention of "Ferdinand Marcos," my instant mental image is "Shoes." I'm sure I'm not the only one...
Ferdinand's second wife, Imelda, became best-known overseas for her collection of 3,000 shoes, seized from the presidential palace when she fled the Philippines. Ferdinand funded her excess by swiping somewhere between US$5 billion and US$10 billion from the state coffers, the nation estimates. In fact, he still holds a Guinness World Record for the "Greatest robbery of a government."
It's an appropriate anniversary to revisit that legacy, and appropriate because a Marcos might once again soon rule the Philippines. The markets and most businesses would prefer to see the other candidate win.
It was February 22, 1986, when Filipinos took to the streets in mass protests against Marcos later dubbed the People Power Revolution. By February 25, the dictator and his free spending wife had been forced to flee for their lives, ending up in exile in Hawaii. Besides plunder, Marcos oversaw a widening wealth gap in an already-poor nation, an explosion in overseas debt, and an economic expansion that reversed into decline and double-digit unemployment by the time he left.
But what goes around, comes around in Filipino politics. Imelda returned to the Philippines in 1991, two years after her husband died. She was convicted of corruption, had the case overturned, then won four terms in the Philippine House of Representatives, at one point replacing her son, Ferdinand Jr. Then Imelda was convicted of graft and corruption again, in 2018. She is appealing, but still facing other charges, and so on...
Ferdinand Jr., better known as Bongbong Marcos, is now running for president himself. Imelda also did so, twice, although she finished far behind in the polls. Bongbong, however, is well ahead in a two-horse race.
Marcos Jr. promises to continue the policies of current President Rodrigo Duterte, who must step down at the end of his six-year term. Duterte's daughter Sara is the running mate as vice president to Marcos.
In all, 267 economists have so far signed off on the Economists for Leni open letter endorsing "full support" of the candidacy of Vice President Leni Robredo. They include five former leaders of the National Economic and Development Authority, the cabinet-level body charged with overseeing economic development and planning.
They note that the Philippines is now fighting to rebound from the deepest economic crisis since those dark days of the 1980s. "We are convinced that only a competent leadership can restore the people's trust and confidence in government, enabling it to effectively preside over the collective effort of economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic," they assert.
The Philippines is still a deeply unequal society. Around 50 powerful families essentially control the entire economy, and all major businesses. The economists say they hope that the next leader can eradicate some of the sources of that inequality and expand the economy for everyone, on a level playing field.
Robredo represents "leadership with a vision of the future," they say, with a sold economics and legal background. She has established a proven track record of leadership as vice president throughout the pandemic. As a human-rights lawyer and social activist before entering politics, she has also shown "a genuine concern for the plight of the poor and the marginalized," the economists believe. She followed her father, a trial court judge, into the law before turning to the ballot box.
One cornerstone of her platform is her employment recovery plan dubbed Hanapbuhay para sa Lahat, or Jobs for All. Robredo has been the leading opposition figure under the presidency of Duterte, a populist leader who rose not from the Manila elite but from Davao City, on the southernmost main island, Mindanao. He served as mayor of Davao City for many years, son to a former governor of Davao province, and succeeded by daughter Sara.
It was Robredo who narrowly beat Bongbong Marcos to the vice presidency in the 2016 elections. Bongbong has consistently downplayed the martial law and excesses under his father, saying it's time to "leave history to the professors." At this point, it would be remiss of me not to point out that under Ferdinand Marcos, according to U.S. historian Alfred W. McCoy, "military murder was the apex of a pyramid of terror - 3,257 killed, 35,000 tortured, and 70,000 incarcerated."
Whereas dissidents "disappeared" in military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, in the Philippines under Marcos they were "salvaged." This left bodies tortured, mutilated and dumped on the roadside as a public display. Such was the evidence of what occurred at a Marcos "safe house," and a means of maintaining a culture of fear.
Rodrigo Duterte is still phenomenally popular in the Philippines, despite his erratic behavior, lack of a coherent economic policy, and claims to have personally murdered criminal suspects. He is also waging a bloody "war on drugs" that has seen many of his enemies as well as petty criminals and drug addicts eliminated. In an echo of the Marcos era, many a body in the "war on drugs" has been left as a warning in the streets. Rodrigo considered running for vice president, but now says he will retire, leaving his daughter to run instead.
There are plenty of second acts in Philippines politics. Bongbong Marcos is way ahead, with 60% support from likely voters in a January 2022 poll by Pulse Asia Research. Robredo is far behind with 16% support, while boxing legend Manny Pacquiao looks set to lose this bout, with only 8% of likely voters supporting him. The gap between Marcos and Robredo widened from 33 percentage points to 44 points from a December poll.
Whoever wins the election on May 9 will face a fraught future. There's the lingering pandemic to contain. China, meanwhile, threatens Philippines territory in the South China/West Philippine Sea (the compass direction dependent on whether you're in Beijing or Manila). Rodrigo Duterte has cozied up to China, and risked alienating its long-time ally the United States, but has drawn limited benefit from that relationship.
The markets would cheer a Robredo victory. But they may have to muddle through much the same kind of mess that a populist president has delivered over this last term. When Duterte took office at the end of June 2016, the Philippine Stock Exchange Index sat at 7,830. It closed today at 7,364, down 6.0% in almost six years.