Rewriting the family history
By: Manuel L. Quezon III
The election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as the new president of the Philippines is the culmination of a story 30 years in the making. It began with the electoral defeat of his mother on May 11, 1992, and ended this May 9 with his achieving the third-largest first term majority in the history of the Philippine presidency (and the first first-term majority since the election of his father in 1965).
In the Philippine political culture, there are elections widely understood as referendums and election, in general, is tantamount to absolution; by winning the presidency, he can, with justice, claim he has closed the book on the standing of his family, in history. Indeed he is widely expected, and has been given the means, to embark on the rewriting of his family’s place in that history.
As we shall see, it may be a pyrrhic victory. In making himself bullet-proof concerning the past, thanks to some good luck and an even greater measure of social media brainwashing, he has ended one epic story while situating himself as the personally uninspiring avatar of a mythical figure (his father), while presiding over an uneasy coalition facing a galvanized new generation of opposition.
This story has a prologue, the years 1987 to 1992. The story begins with his uncle, President Fidel V. Ramos. It has a middle, with the architect of his winning coalition, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and an end, President Rodrigo Duterte the father of his running mate, Sara Duterte. In the beginning came the identification, by the political class, of a solution it desired, and the obstacles to fulfilling that desire; the middle was also the period in which that political class negotiated and accomplished, the systematic elimination of the blocs exercising a veto on its intentions, helped, not a little, by happenstance; the end achieved a new beginning, by marshaling a coalition of old and new forces to finally stop the political pendulum that swung from reform to populism from swinging back to reform.
In February 1987, a year after the People Power Revolution, Filipinos ratified a new constitution, thereby established their Fifth Republic. One academic described it as what would likely have emerged, if the constitutional convention convened in 1971, hadn’t been coopted by Mr. Marcos in 1972 to produce a document he himself wrote instead of the delegates.
Corazon Aquino relinquished her revolutionary powers and the restoration of democracy was declared complete. It was a democracy which at its rebirth, contained the seeds of its own destruction. Its provisions, as time would prove, written by an appointed committee in a rush, would turn out to be vague and self-contradictory with respect to the manner in which it could be amended, or the execution of some provisions, such as martial law, meant to prevent the reemergence of an over-strong executive. The result would be, as administrations would come to discover, essentially a sterile constitutional organism, incapable of improving itself because it couldn’t be amended.
The body politic was also riddled with infirmities by this point. A month before the ratification of the constitution, literally at the gates of the presidential palace, trigger-happy policemen had massacred protesting farmers, inaugurating a series of confrontations with the radical Left, that would culminate in Kidapawan, North Cotabato in 2016, including a massacre of peasants in the Aquino’s own Hacienda Luisita. It was a blood feud primarily aimed at the Aquinos but including the government, that would help craft an alliance with Rodrigo Duterte who temporarily governed in coalition with the Communists after he won.
Returning to 1987: Aquino’s government was born of People Power in 1986, a political phenomenon that wouldn’t be extinguished until 2006, after it had brought down the presidency of Joseph Estrada in 2001. Stalking People Power, on the other hand, was military messianism which had tried, and failed, to mount a coup against Marcos in 1986 (thus leading to People Power) and which reared its ugly head again in January 1987. This military adventurism continued to manifest itself in seven attempted coups against Mrs. Aquino, and would flare up as a bad habit that wouldn’t peter out until November 2007.
But first, we must return to 1992. Mrs. Aquino decided not to seek a second term for which she was uniquely qualified. Her Speaker of the House, Ramon Mitra Jr., had built an administration party for her; her Secretary of National Defense, Fidel V. Ramos, pledged to abide by a party convention’s outcome. He lost. He established a new party, and eked out a plurality victory, after having destroyed the chances for a functioning party system to be reestablished.
1992, the first presidential election since the EDSA Revolution, and the first under the new constitution, was different from all that had come before, because it was a multiparty election requiring no runoff: by design, it was the opposite of past elections in that it made a majority very difficult. From 1935 to 1969, only one president won by a plurality. Since 1992, only one president has ever gotten a majority.
In that election, two candidates were competing as recent returnees from exile: Imelda Romualdez Marcos and her husband’s principal lieutenant, Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. She ran under her husband’s banner, the KBL. He ran under a party he created, NPC, when he failed in a hostile takeover bid for the premartial law party he’d belonged to (decades later another billionaire would acquire it in a friendly handover from the Laurels, by then cured of their political ambitions). Both lost, but their combined percentage of votes (28%) would have been enough to secure victory against any other candidate. The Marcoses and their former associates realized they retained a competitive constituency and nurtured it.
The next five years produced other trends that would characterize, or more accurately, bedevil, the newly restored democracy. Three events indicate the three fault lines. The first was the political class realize the Marcoses were down, but not out. The second was that within two years of his 1992 election, Ramos methodically built a coalition and swept the midterms, and had embarked but failed in his attempt to shift to the parliamentary system. The third was that this effort was defeated by three things: hostile public opinion (fanned and reported by mass media), the defective nature of the 1987 Constitution itself, which exposed each path to constitutional change as legally defective, while organized constituencies and institutions could exercise a veto on the aspirations of political class. Twice, during the presidencies of Ramos and Estrada, two leading figures of EDSA symbolized the civil society-Church-media veto on politicians: Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila and former President Corazon Aquino.
Within a decade, that is, by 1997, the fault lines of Philippine democracy that would swallow up the Fifth Republic in its own contradictions, were exposed. Within this period, something else happened. In 1991, the Marcoses came home. They came home, because the Swiss government had made it a condition to cooperating with the Philippine government in its efforts to recover the Marcos wealth. The Marcoses would have to have the chance to face their accusers in Philippine courts. In the end, a few hundred millions would be recovered through successful prosecution.
In 1998, when Ramos’ time was up; his modernizing administration revealed another fatal flaw of the Philippine system. With presidents unable to be reelected, and with majorities practically impossible to achieve in a multiparty system with no runoff elections, presidents who’d spent their terms building up coalitions, would see them dissolve, only to reassemble, on a purely mercenary basis, to support their successors until the next presidential contest. This in turn practically guaranteed, as Ramos discovered, that administrations would be unable to produce a viable candidate. What it did guarantee, was a shift away from reform towards populism and thus an election neither Ramos nor his coalition had ever wanted. 1998 produced a mandate for a populist (and Marcos loyalist), Joseph Estrada. Popular but inattentive, Estrada was convinced by his circle of advisors to support proposals to amend the Constitution, a proposal which was again vetoed by the gatekeepers of the post-EDSA consensus: Cardinal Sin, Corazon Aquino, civil society, and in short order, EDSA II occurred: but this time, People Power was quickly papered over to make it constitutional and thus nip in the bud any temptation to fundamentally alter the order of things.
A second People Power, this time, an urban insurrection mounted in support of the jailed Estrada, proved the death knell for People Power: the middle class, alarmed by the sight of massed ranks of the urban poor assaulting the presidential palace, turned their backs on any kind of regime change other than by predictably scheduled elections. Mrs. Arroyo was a political thoroughbred, incarnating the pre-martial law traditional leadership while herself being cast in the technocratic mold. With her foot in both traditional and reformist camps, she was able to mobilize the former to neutralize the latter.
The beneficiary of these twin events, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, served out the remainder of her predecessor’s turn and, by means of a loophole in the constitution, won a disputed election in 2004 thus serving the second-longest time in office in Philippine history. Her assiduousness in maintaining the levers of power meant that steadily, she coopted the institutions that might have otherwise supported regime change. Here, fortune favored her. By 2002-03 Jaime Cardinal Sin died, and Rome stripped the Manila archdiocese of territory making it unlikely any Manila archbishop would ever have the clout Sin had wielded in his prime. She’d then divided the Church hierarchy, civil society, and media enough, through the deft use of patronage, to continue to rule even after serious allegations of election fraud marred her 2004 victory. The same judicious use of patronage as well as genuinely effective professionalization efforts, ended two decades of military adventurism. But just like Ramos, she proved unpopular by the end of her term and unable to find a viable successor.
Arroyo repeatedly tried, and came close to instituting, the precise solution of a unicameral parliamentary system modeled on Malaysia that was the political class’s prescription for change since the Ramos years. The choice of model is instructive, revealing an ambition to create a permanent ruling party, and elections that would be made manageable without the expense and risk of a national campaign or national leaders with the kind of popularity and mandate against whom local barons can’t compete. The problem was and is, that this was unacceptable to a public that expects and won’t give up, directly voting not just for a head of state, but the head of government; and which antagonized significant political players, such as senators unexcited by the idea of being abolished, or a media and public suspicious of the mysteries of Charter Change.
Having failed to amend the Constitution and never having enjoyed wide popularity, she ended up true to type, settling on an unelectable anointed successor. She would end up under hospital arrest under her successor.
In the same manner that Benigno Aquino Jr.’s assassination in 1983 was the death knell for Ferdinand Marcos; rule, the death of his widow, Corazon Aquino in 2009, was the death knell for the Arroyo scheme. Her son, Benigno Aquino III, was elected president in 2010 with a plurality of 42%, the highest achieved up to that time. His reform-minded administration enjoyed robust popularity in marked contrast to his predecessor. Since mid-term elections are a referendum on sitting presidents, his successful campaign secured a continuing legislative majority and gave him political capital to start jailing previously untouchable officials for corruption: at one point, a former President, (and incumbent congresswoman) Arroyo, and three senators had been jailed. The legislature, even with Mrs. Marcos in the House and her son, Ferdinand Jr. in the Senate, passed a law recognizing the human rights violations of the Marcos dictatorship and instituting a mechanism, funded with recovered Marcos money, to compensate its victims.
But the Fifth Republic his mother had established came to an end in the morning of January 29, 2015, when forty coffins arrived in Manila, and the President of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III wasn’t there to receive them. They had been slain in an anti-terrorist operation that succeded in its objective but at a great cost in lives due to bumbling execution by hand-picked commanders. Aquino’s reasons for being absent were honorable: he actually cared deeply about doing something for the families of the fallen, commensurate to their supreme sacrifice. But he was also given calamitous advice: to attend the inaugural of a car assembly plant.
These circumstances must be detailed because the result was what I have called The Great Divorce, because it was so deeply emotional, instantaneous, and thus permanently catastrophic. Few of the many Filipinos who’d originally stood bravely to attend Ninoy’s funeral, and who, despite the many paths they’d chosen since then, had recovered their sense of mission in the wake of Cory Aquino’s passing and funeral, and elected her son to the presidency, stayed with him after that. Outrage hardened into a very public rejection of Aquino, when a figure with boldness, charisma, and the right social media backing, barged in on the political scene.
President Aquino was no different from his predecessors in finding his coalition dissolving as his term was coming to an end. Furthermore, weakened politically, he was unable to prevent his coalition, originally split between the Aquino Old Guard represented by his estranged Vice-President, Jejomar Binay, and his own supporters, splitting again between two allies, Manuel Roxas II and Grace Poe. The chance to take on all comers already halved, was halved again; while on the other side, a great consolidation had taken place, with the most motivating of objectives: first, to do to Aquino what he did to Arroyo: prevent a successful succession, and second, to permanently end, once and for all, the swinging of the political pendulum which had placed so many of the political bigwigs in legal peril.
The Great Divorce took the Aquinos off the table, politically. Through the adept manipulation of the media, a will-he or won’t-he drama was created, over the candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte. Dissatisfaction over the unintended consequences of reform –delays, inconveniences, missteps—combined with a souring of the public mood, turned what should have been a contest over how best to carry forward the economic and social gains of Aquino into a revolt against the complexities of liberal democracy, which was characterized, in a manner that has come to be familiar the world over, as the feckless, uncaring because privileged, machinations of an out-of-touch elite; the antidote was brutal doses of iconoclastic populism. In contrast to the eclipse of the Aquino brand was the looming assumption of Marcos Jr., who sought the vice-presidency.
In retrospect, whatever one considers the shortcomings of his time in office, Aquino’s last battle was a fight that foiled the Marcoses one more time –and as it turned out, the last time for the Aquinos. This must have been exceptionally galling to the Marcoses who have always viewed things in personalistic terms. Aquino would pass away in 2021, having been sidelined by his own party in the 2019 midterms, which was handily won by Duterte’s coalition, which included the Arroyos, the Estradas, and the Marcoses, as prominent allies.
But for all his bluster and bragging, and phenomenal popularity, President Duterte failed to create, and bequeath, a lasting movement. Early on in his administration one of his principal lieutenants, a former priest and Communist rebel, had crafted a comprehensive plan for creating a popular movement, amending the constitution, and purging the bureaucracy that could have created a kind of Venezuelan-style regime. Instead, Duterte preferred business as usual, at which he proved inattentive and clumsy. By 2018 Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo felt compelled to mount a legislative coup with the active assistance of the President’s daughter, because the legislature was adrift, just as the bureaucracy had been adrift until Arroyo backstopped Duterte with veterans of her own administration. For the first time in Philippine history a president didn’t determine the speakership. At the end of his term he found himself without a viable successor and presiding over a coalition not fully under his control.
The opposition, slender as it was, was personified by Leni Robredo. By a twist of fate, the death of Aquino and the lack of interest of Roxas in politics, hers became a battle, which for the first time, she could on her own terms and not as a proxy for others. But by this time, her star had dimmed; in contrast to the lack of viable successors for Duterte, or the weakness of the opposition, other figures such as the Mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno, or former boxing champ Manny Pacquiao, seemed genuinely viable candidates. But what of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.?
Recall that in 1992, the combined votes of Mrs. Marcos and Danding Cojuangco was 28% of the total. When Ferdinand Jr. ran for the Senate (one has to be in the top 12 nationally, to win) in 1995, he placed 16th with 31.7% of the vote. It had been a crowded field with names still carrying the sheen of the anti-Marcos struggle. By 2010, when he finally achieved senate election, he placed 7th with 34.5% of the vote. When he ran for vice-president in 2016, he obtained 34.4% of the vote, defeated by the administration candidate, Leni Robredo who obtained 35%. His sister, in the less-competitive 2019 senatorial midterms, came in 8th, with 33.5% of the vote. The Marcoses, then, had the ability to maintain an enduring percentage in an ever-expanding electorate, but it was a middling one, in senatorial terms, and one unable to overcome an administration-backed rival for the vice-presidency.
How is it, then, that within six years, by 2022, Marcos Jr. would be able to obtain 59% of the vote, with Robredo obtaining only 28%? The key here is the percentage obtained by his running mate, Sara Duterte, the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, who obtained 61% of the vote in the same election (in a provision dating to the first national election in 1935, presidents and vice-presidents are elected separately to ensure potential successors have their own electoral mandate). The tandem achieved a remarkably similar percentage which suggests the mutually supporting role their respective constituencies played.
This was the result of old-fashioned coalition building, combined with a trick first demonstrated in the campaign of Rodrigo Duterte: build up uncertainty and anticipation, thereby creating excitement, and depriving all other campaigns of headline space. President Duterte remained phenomenally popular, but his preferred successor, his factotum-turned-senator, Christopher Go, proved unelectable, whatever permutation was explored (whether as a presidential candidate running with Rodrigo Duterte for the vice-presidency, or as president or vice-president in tandem with the president’s daughter). This left his daughter as his natural political heir, but her strength in the Visayas and Mindanao still left her weak in vote-heavy Luzon.
Marcos Jr., for his part, had succeeded in obtaining a state funeral in the national heroes’ cemetery for his father, from President Duterte, but failed in his electoral protest against Mrs. Robredo, He was strong in Luzon but weak in the Visayas and Mindanao, which harbored historical resentments against the Marcoses. A combination of the two made perfect sense, except for quibbling over who would get top billing. A concerted effort ensued, to force Mr. Marcos to once again run for vice-president but perhaps for the first time in his political life, he showed grit and determination. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo very publicly assumed the role of broker between the two factions and in the end, was perceived as having been instrumental in convincing Sara Duterte to postpone her presidential ambitions and settle for the vice-presidency, which caused a festering resentment in her father.
The ensuing drama over which one would get top billing meant that all other candidates looked grey and weak in comparison; the union of old Marcosian ambitions and the newly empowered Duterte constituency also created a perception of invincibility: from the moment the tandem was announced, both achieved majority status in the surveys they never relinquished throughout the rest of the campaign.
Mrs. Robredo in the same period had triggered more moderate buzz over the question of whether she would run, and whether she could unite the opposition. The coalition that had elected her to office in 2016 had almost instantly dissolved in the immediate realignment that follows every national election. She was thus saddled with very publicly representing the opposition without actually leading it. It would take the defeat of her running mate, Manuel Roxas II, in the 2019 midterms, and the death of former President Benigno S. Aquino III, in 2021, to leave her as the undisputed leader of her party, with just a year to go before the polls. In the intervening years, she’d borne the brunt of the enormous online propaganda infrastructure of the Duterte government, combined with that of the Marcoses; the story, then, of her campaign, was that of first, bringing her relative popularity which had sunk to 8% when presidential polling began in 2020, to her eventual 28% last May 9. In effect, this represents a constituency she herself created, without party, without the support of the established leaders who’d cultivated her candidacy. But it was one doomed from the start shown by opinion polling.
The secret behind the Marcos Restoration was twofold. The first was that, having returned, they were an organized and helpful bloc for administrations confronted by the EDSA coalition. In particular, the Estrada and Arroyo administrations found them useful allies, and they proved helpful in moderating the zeal of government offices in pursuing the Marcoses wealth. The second was the skillful deployment of propaganda geared not at changing the minds of the generations that had ousted them, but instead, focusing on younger generations.
This was done across many fronts, from the creation and distribution of children’s penmanship books (the sentences to copy extolled Marcos’ greatness), the sponsorship of Junior Ferdinand and Imelda singing contests, the creation of a Marcos Presidential Center tasked with the publication of books extoling the Marcoses, to pioneering efforts to present the Marcos perspective on events (and a corresponding demonizing of the Aquinos and EDSA) on YouTube and other social media: extremely effective for a population where the majority don’t continue schooling past the elementary level and increasingly small percentages finish intermediate and collegiate level studies. Ironically, a reaction to the dictatorship was the abolition of government-mandated standard textbooks, liberalizing the procurement of books (leaving it up to individual schools whose principals could then be lobbied individually).
Combined, as mentioned earlier, with changes in the public mood, and the rehabilitation of the Marcoses was essentially a done deal even before Ferdinand Jr. sought the presidency. The last confrontation over history can be said to have taken place in 2016, when, realizing he was poised to be elected vice-president, a herculean effort was mounted by survivors of the dictatorship; it may have been enough, combined with the efforts of the Aquino administration, to foil Marcos’ election. But the investment in social media continued, expending the ranks of those generations susceptible to Marcos myth-making. A final component, a social media created subset of this, is best described as the Cargo Cult constituency, convinced that the Marcoses had vast stores of gold, which would be shared with the citizenry, once they returned to power.
The only thing left was something the Marcoses are old pros at: the reassembling of an interlocking network of provincial barons, into a disciplined, motivated because well-funded, association of regional powers. Marcos symbolically ran under the banner of the hitherto-obscure Federal Party, to demonstrate the sweetener he was offering these local barons. His campaign was disciplined, tightly controlling media access which was kept to friendly outfits, and launching perhaps one of the best advertising campaigns in electoral history: branding him, almost immediately as the hope and change candidate as his closest rival lurched from one experimental advertisement to another. Infinitely resourced, unbeatably broad, incontestably disciplined and organized, it left nothing to chance and maintained a commanding lead from start to finish.
The next three years
In his dramatic time in office, President Duterte accomplished what his backers had failed to do. He systematically demolished the institutions that had thwarted the political class’s project of abolishing national elections and instituting political changes they and the business community desired. In Putin-style dressing-downs he intimidated big business; fortuitously, enough judicial vacancies would come on line during his term, for him to engage in a clever scheme: the appointment of elderly judges eager to be useful either in expectation of, or or in thanks for, a promotion, and their replacement still during Duterte’s term, by younger judges which would deny his successor future appointments; he used court cases long prepared by former President Arroyo’s people, to first, financially weaken the owners of the leading broadsheet, the Philippine Daily Inquirer; next, he bogged down the leading online media outfit, Rappler, in a series of court cases over its ownership structure; finally, he implemented the non-renewal of the legislative franchise of ABS-CBN, the leading television network in the country: media was thoroughly intimidated as a result. His so-called “war on drugs” also targeted local governments and marshaled the police in a state-sponsored spree of liquidations that earned the interest of the International Criminal Court; indeed the only two institutions that ended up relatively impervious to his browbeating were the diplomatic service and the armed forces, both of which stymied his expressed desire to end the Philippine alliance with the United States and replace it with an orientation towards China and Russia.
In one respect, amending the constitution, Duterte disappointed the coalition that had brought him to power. Because he was inept at most aspects of governance, he did not, because he could not, muster the support required, because of a veto exercised by his own economic team, which announced a shift to Federalism (which would have provided cover for the real priority of a shift to unicameral parliamentary government). Duterte himself seemed uninterested, having learned to enjoy the presidency, to see a diminution of its powers.
But his vivid presidency had created an appetite for continuity in the constituency that had achieved catharsis from his election and were loath to return to obscurity. And as we’ve seen, circumstances resulted in the creation and successful election, of a new Marcos-Duterte-Arroyo coalition.
The next three years is the period during which Ferdinand Marcos Jr. must navigate his coalition to reach the safe harbor of a comfortable mid-term electoral victory, a referendum on his administration. Obtaining the third-highest first term victory in presidential history may enable his coalition to finally amend the constitution: but federalism, arguably an easier sell to the public, may not go down well if also a package deal with unicameral parliamentarism, despite its long the political bucket list of the political class. It would, among other things, mean reneging on the implied promise given Sara Duterte when she ran for vice-president –that she would be the next president, and not a merely ceremonial one at that.
The Duterte administration found its options limited by the resilience of historical ties with the United States as demonstrated by the two institutions that proved the most impervious to the President’s desires, the military and diplomatic services, and a domestic veto exercised by local governments whose embrace of Chinese POGOs blunted Beijing’s influence, which proved generous in terms of the infrastructure of propaganda and courtesies to the president but was relatively parsimonious. The same dynamics will persist in the new administration.
In the meantime, having won the battle for history, and achieved the vindication of his dynasty, Mr. Marcos must now confront challenges few of his peers believe he has the temperament or toughness to fully tackle.
From 1965 to 2028, the Philippines would have had six out nine presidents coming from only three families: Marcos, Macapagal, and Aquino. This represents a greater diversity in dynastic succession than India (Nehru), Indonesia (Sukarno), Malaysia (Razak), or even Singapore (Lee), but is merely prelude to the next, expected, presidential familial duo: that of Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter, Sara. Here, former President Arroyo, who has just announced she is relinquishing her expected bid to be Speaker for the second time, in favor of Mr. Marcos’ first cousin, Martin Romualdez, could determine the balance of power. The prospects of Mr. Marcos are limited by the necessity, under his current coalition arrangement, to relinquish power by 2028. The only question, under the current coalition arrangement, is whether at that time, the Philippines would finally shift to the parliamentary system, enabling Mrs. Arroyo to finally achieve her ambition of becoming Prime Minister, but in either case reducing Marcos or Duterte to squabbling over a ceremonial presidency; or whether the presidential system will endure if only because it is a prize Duterte expects to win.
Manuel L. Quezon III is a Filipino writer, former television host, and a grandson of former Philippine president Manuel L. Quezon. He is a columnist and editorial writer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.