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HORIZONS

Marcos 2.0: First as tragedy, then as farce?

The great German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once reportedly claimed that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.” Think of, for instance, Alexander the Great of Macedonia, whose legacy inspired the rise of Julius Cesar two centuries later.

But Karl Marx, Hegel’s pupil, argued that the picture is often more complicated since notable figures tend to appear “the first time as tragedy, [and] the second time as farce.” In his case, Marx closely observed the rise of Napoleon III, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, whose unlikely rise to power in the mid-19th century was largely built on the legacy of his famous uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte.

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Despite his humble Corsican roots, Napoléon rose to become a continental emperor by leveraging his political instincts and brilliant military record. The famed general was a natural leader with an inimitably multifarious mind, allowing him to present different sides to different audiences depending on the situation at hand.

In contrast, his nephew was largely seen as a buffoon, a poor replica of his widely admired uncle. Crucially, however, he had the right name. And once in power, Napoleon III would go on to literally transform the face of his nation. He appointed top-notch urban planners, engineers, and architectural geniuses, such as Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who oversaw the modernization of Paris’ basic infrastructure and the city’s transformation into the jewel of European capitals. In many ways, he is responsible for, both literally and figuratively, the foundations of today’s France.

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Each nation is unique in its own rights, but the parallels with the Philippines, a fellow Catholic-majority nation perched on the other end of the Eurasian rimland, is unmistakable. By now, dear reader, you may guess where this column is heading. Notwithstanding his countless foibles and disastrous legacy, any objective historian would tell you that Ferdinand Marcos was a force of nature. And similar to Napoleon, his reign ended in tragedy.

A gifted orator with ruthless political instincts, Marcos, hailing from a marginal political dynasty, rose through the ranks to become the most consequential president in modern Philippine history. He not only became the first president to win a re-election in post-independence Philippines, thanks to the notoriously fraudulent and violent 1969 elections, but he also managed to stay in power for more than two decades against all odds.

His dictatorship, however, didn’t emerge out of thin air, but instead exploited growing public disaffection with the increasingly dysfunctional democracy that bedeviled mid-20th century Philippines. Just to put things into context, let’s briefly review the “democracy,” which paved the way for Marcos’ “constitutional dictatorship.”

Our congressional expenditure ballooned from P2.7 million in 1946 to P53.9 million in 1968, yet the dynasty-infested legislature largely slept on its job: the total number of bills passed (versus those that didn’t clear earlier readings or presidential veto) by Congress declined from 11.4 percent in 1946 to only 1.7 percent in 1970. From 1964 to 1971, Congress repeatedly failed to pass the General Appropriations Act in its 100-day regular session. And all of this amidst insurgencies, a collapsing currency, a fiscal crisis, and the raging Cold War in Southeast Asia.

Far from making our nation “great again,” Marcos’ “New Society” project, however, only reinforced corruption and patronage politics rather than spawned a robust developmental state. After two decades in power, Marcos had no single world-class industry to bequeath to his successors, a stark contrast to his fellow dictators in South Korea and Taiwan.

In contrast to Korea’s chaebols, which powered the rise of Hyundai and Samsung, Marcos’ cronies were too busy drowning the country in debt while themselves swimming in embezzled funds. Then, there was the fausse royauté pretentions of first lady Imelda Marcos. Singapore’s legendary leader Lee Kuan Yew pithily summed up the tragedy in the following line: “[Marcos] might have started off as a hero but ended up as a crook.”

Critics have largely dismissed Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who has similarly promised to end an era of dysfunctional democracy, as a caricature of his father by pointing out the namesake son’s lack of either comparable credentials or fiery personality. Yet, history has often also taught us how even prodigal sons (or nephews) can leave their own mark in history when they trade their forebearers’ megalomania with sound pragmatism.

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