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Echoes in Manila

The Signal
Family Legend
How did the son of the notoriously corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos win the Philippines’ presidential election in a landslide? Alvin Camba on anti-elite anger, disinformation, and rewritten history.
Jose Aliling / The Signal
Jose Aliling / The Signal
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known to all as Bongbong, won a sweeping victory in the Philippines’ presidential election last week, winning more than 60 percent of the vote in a field of 10 candidates. Marcos’s father was the longest-serving president in Filipino history, but his rule from 1965 to 1986 was marked by unrestrained corruption, the arbitrary arrest of political opponents, and the worst economic recession in the country’s history in 1984-85. The elder Marcos was ousted in 1986 by a broad-based uprising known as the People Power Revolution, and he fled with nearly $1 billion in cash, gold, and foreign bank deposits to Hawaii. His wife Imelda’s collection of more than 3,000 pairs of shoes became a global emblem of the family’s iniquity and extravagance at the expense of their country’s economic struggles. Yet in this year’s presidential campaign, Bongbong Marcos touted his father’s rule as a golden era and his family as the true representatives of the Filipino people against corrupt elites—and was rewarded with overwhelming popular support. How did this happen?
Alvin Camba is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and a faculty affiliate at the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University. Camba was born in the Philippines and has been conducting fieldwork there since 2017. In his view, the younger Marcos won because he was able to cast himself as a populist, tapping into widespread resentments against political elites and growing material inequality. Marcos also led a campaign to rewrite his family’s history, supported mostly by disinformation and lies disseminated through social media. And he allied himself with the Philippines’ outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, an authoritarian populist under investigation by the International Criminal Court for extrajudicial killings, who’s still a highly popular figure at home. As Camba sees it, the victories of Duterte and Marcos are part of the global trend of authoritarian populism; both men crafted images of themselves as strong leaders capable of taking on corrupt elites, and both have mastered techniques of disinformation to support and drive their political narratives. In the Philippines, Camba says, many people now interpret their country’s past and present very differently than Westerners do.
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Michael Bluhm: Why is he called Bongbong?
Alvin Camba: I’ve tried to find out, but I have no idea how he ended up with the name Bongbong. Filipinos across the country come up with nicknames—it’s a cultural thing, and this is pretty normal. In Tagalog, the main language in the Philippines, the word “bong” is like “bang” in English—it’s the sound a gun makes, but it doesn’t mean anything else.
Bluhm: How did Marcos win such a landslide victory?
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Camba: There are a few reasons. First, the foundations of democracy have eroded in the Philippines. Since 1986—post–Ferdinand Marcos—governments have chronically failed to deliver on public goods. Instead, political elites have focused on competing among themselves and monopolizing positions of power.
There’s a material reason, too. The Philippines is one of the most dynamic, fastest-growing economies in the world. While people’s incomes generally increased, there’s been a surge in income inequality. The economic elites are billionaires. People see this glaring inequality, and they see the ineffectiveness of government—and because of that, there’s a lack of trust in government and democratic institutions.
The quality of education in the country is bad. People point out that a lot of college graduates voted for Marcos, but that doesn’t account for the quality of college education in the Philippines. The poor quality of education in the country as a whole, largely due to government negligence, has led to a situation in which people pervasively can’t distinguish historical research from the kinds of disinformation and fake news that proliferate on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. And in this context, there’s been a massive disinformation campaign by the Marcos’s and their circle over the past 10 years to change the historical narrative of the Marcos family.
Bluhm: Many people all over the world still remember Marcos’s parents—they remember the popular uprising that ousted his father in 1986 for corruption and authoritarian misrule, and his mother’s collection of thousands of pairs of shoes made global headlines. Yet during the presidential campaign, Bongbong Marcos embraced his family history—how was he able to turn a legacy like that into an electoral advantage?
Camba: The symbolism of the Marcos name has changed since the early 1990s. The link between the name and corruption and dictatorship has weakened because people are frustrated with so many other things in their society.
In this environment, the Marcos family has been able to capture the narrative and tell the entire story of the last five decades from their perspective. From their point of view, it’s not even about contesting public knowledge about their corruption or trying to prove it false; it’s about cultivating an alternative narrative altogether.
Julan Shirwod Nueva
Julan Shirwod Nueva
More from Alvin Camba at The Signal:
The symbolism of the Marcos name has changed since the early 1990s. The link between the name and corruption and dictatorship has weakened because people are frustrated with so many other things in their society. In this environment, the Marcos family has been able to capture the narrative and tell the entire story of the last five decades from their perspective. From their point of view, it’s not even about contesting public knowledge about their corruption or trying to prove it false; it’s about cultivating an alternative narrative altogether.”
The Philippines is a center of business-process outsourcing. If, say, an American calls customer service for a big bank or a consumer-products manufacturer, they usually end up talking to a Filipino, if not someone from India. There are Filipino firms that have pivoted from doing this kind of back-office work to operating as paid troll farms, creating social-media accounts that saturate the information space with particular narratives—that is, they employ people to generate and propagate disinformation. For example, they create and popularize narratives that undermine public critics of the Marcos family and cast doubt on historical evidence about them. These are normal people who have an office job; it just happens that their job is funneling out disinformation.”
Around the world, people are losing trust in democratic institutions, and there’s a call for strong leaders. There’s this idea that oligarchs or opportunistic elites have taken over democracy, and we need a strong leader to come in, kick these people out, and enforce discipline. … There’s also a frustration with democratic procedures and processes—people want quick outcomes that they can easily see. Something that these authoritarian populists have in common, meanwhile, is that they’ve all learned how to use disinformation strategies. The Duterte family has used a lot of troll farms in the past few years. The same is true among interests supporting Donald Trump. I know a couple of Filipinos who were pumping out disinformation on “Stop the Steal,” the disinformation campaign associated with U.S. Republicans, falsely claiming that Joe Biden lost the 2020 presidential election. It’s all very similar.”
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