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How Bongbong Marcos is Riding the Strongman Template to Malacanang

He's racing for two dynasties, analyst says.
Oct 15, 2021
Photo/s: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Tom Smith
The Conversation via Reuters Connect

There are still more than six months to go before the next Philippines election in May 2022, but the horse-trading and behind-the-scenes machinations are heating up. Incumbent president, the right-wing strongman Rodrigo Duterte, is banned by the constitution from standing for the presidency again next year – he did consider the vice-presidency before announcing his retirement from politics on Oct. 2 – but the list of nine official candidates includes some interesting personalities, not least the retired boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao.

But it’s the candidacy of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – son of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. – that has attracted the most recent attention. The simple fact of his candidacy being taken seriously, despite the memory of his late father, is an indication of how far the country has come since the reviled dictator was ousted in a popular revolution in 1986 and fled to the US allegedly carrying billions of dollars from the national treasury.

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Bongbong is no stranger to politics, having been appointed as vice-governor of the northern province of Ilcos Norte in 1980, aged 23, during the later and most troubling period of his father’s rule. After Marcos Snr died in exile in 1989, the sitting president, Corazon Aquino, allowed the other members of his family to return to the Philippines, with Imelda Marcos facing more than 60 criminal and civil charges, including corruption and tax evasion. Despite this shadow having over the family, by 1992 Bongbong was elected as a representative for Ilcos Norte and served as governor from 1998. In 2010, he was elected senator for the Nacionalista Party.


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In 2016 he attempted to become vice president, losing to the incumbent, Leni Robredo, by just 0.64% of the votes cast, a result he bitterly contested. Now, after five years of cosying up to Duterte, he is attempting to succeed in the race for the top job.

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For a generation of Filipinos, the memories of martial law, declared by Ferdinand Sr in 1972, are still raw. This moment ushered in an era of repression which eventually led to his ousting. But this instinctively visceral reaction to the Marcos name is not shared by many younger Filipinos. This is an important factor to weigh up when thinking about the 2022 election – in a country with a median age of under 26, those bad memories may not count for a great deal at the polling booths.

This is not to say that living victims of Ferdinand Sr’s reign of torture will not be heard – at least one survivor has spoken out about his treatment at the hands of the military in 1982. Ultimately, he is unlikely to completely escape his father’s long shadow – and the signs are that he will embrace the family brand. This is sure to stoke protests even further as electioneering ramps up.

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If he does play to the electorate’s desire for a strong leader, Bongbong will hardly be reinventing the political wheel in the Philippines. Duterte himself was carrying an awful lot of murky baggage when he leapt from mayor of Davao City in the deep south to win the presidency six years ago. This was a candidate that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented as having run death squads.

The UN general assembly had discussed Duterte’s Davao Death Squads (known now as the DDS) as far back as 2009, yet none of this prevented him attracting 39% of the vote in 2016 – to ensure him the presidency. In fact, this notoriety was part of the image he built to win power.

Duterte’s victory offers something of a template for Bongbong in other ways too. Duterte successfully weaponized Facebook and the role social media is already playing in retelling the Marcos dictatorship on YouTube for a new generation is already coming into question.

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It’s early days yet to accurately assess his chance of victory – the roster of candidates still feels far from final more than six months out from the election. Many suspect Duterte’s daughter Sara could enter the race late as a replacement for a Anna Capela Velasco, who many believe has been nominated as a placeholder for the 43-year-old current mayor of Davao. Things will become clearer by November 15, which is the deadline for substitute candidates.

Another candidate, Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, has also been identified as a possible placeholder for Sara. Dela Rosa was promoted by Duterte from his post as a provincial police chief in Davao to the national police chief and his point man on the drug war. He was nominated two hours before the Oct. 8 deadline – and his own surprise at being put forward is an indication of the level of game playing going on before the campaign proper has even got underway.

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There has been much discussion of a Duterte-Marcos, or Marcos-Duterte alliance. Duterte authorized a hero’s burial for the former dictator’s remains and the families have a long political relationship, going back to the 1960s.

Bongbong has already indicated that Duterte’s drug war – which has resulted in the deaths of at least 8,000 people since 2016 – would continue on his watch and he said he would shield any suspects from the International Criminal Court investigation into crimes against humanity committed by the Duterte regime which was formally authorised in September.

In essence, Bongbong is so far openly positioning himself as a continuity candidate, adopting the same policies and methods as Duterte and owning the Marcos family name. So at least in this regard, voters will know plenty about who they intend to vote for – or against.

Tom Smith is a Principal Lecturer in International Relations & Academic Director of the Royal Air Force College Cranwell, University of Portsmouth

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