Technocratic populism: Marcos’ Maharlika fund
A few weeks ago, I stumbled into a back-and-forth Twitter exchange with a prominent journalist, Melissa Chan, who had just interviewed former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. As expected, the seasoned journalist asked Khan, a former cricket superstar-turned full-time politician, some very tough questions, which provoked both uproar and jubilation among highly polarized Pakistani viewers.
In particular, she drew parallels between Khan, who has been accused of deploying mob politics to win his way back to power, and authoritarian populists such as Brazil’s outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro—not to mention, of course, our very own mayor-turned-president Rodrigo Duterte. I took exception though with a tweet of hers, where the award-winning journalist placed Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the same basket as Bolsonaro and Duterte.
Dear reader: Make no mistake, I see no reason to view the new man in the Malacañang as a “progressive” leader. But, in fairness, President Marcos Jr. has, so far, also not been anything like Duterte, Bolsonaro, or even Donald Trump. My contention is that the best way to describe our new president is “technocratic populist”: namely, a relatively centrist leader, who deftly combines technocratic lexicon with populist performativity. And that’s precisely the way to understand the logic behind the proposed Maharlika Wealth Fund, which is based on thin economics but thick politics.
Objectively speaking, Mr. Marcos’ reign in his first six months in power, a crucial period that often sets the tone for an incumbent’s entire term, has been more “reversion to the mean” rather than continuity with his authoritarian populist predecessor. Right off the bat, the new Filipino president has recalibrated Duterte’s violent drug war in favor of a saner and more humane version.
Nor do we see Mr. Marcos dabbling in the Red-tagging mania, which dominated the upper echelons of power during the former administration’s final years in office. Current National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos has openly backed general amnesty for repentant communist rebels and, crucially, a more “human security” approach to national security.
Fortunately, Mr. Marcos has also dispensed with his predecessor’s strategic subservience toward Beijing in favor of more balanced relations with all major powers. Nor do we see populist antics such as faux-progressive assaults on more independent-minded conglomerates under the guise of fighting “oligarchs.” Mind you, “oligarchy” refers to the “bad rule of few,” per Aristotle, so it better describes our political dynasties.
None of the abovementioned policy shifts, however, make Mr. Marcos a “progressive” leader, either. We are yet to hear any official apology, or sincere repentance, for the dark days of martial law. The list is too long for this short piece.
The proposed Maharlika sovereign wealth fund is a poignant reminder of how the current president is bridging two tendencies in Philippine politics. On one hand, the strategic usage of the term “Maharlika” is clearly an attempt to tap into the late strongman’s legacy, which appeals to a relatively large “illiberal” and loyalist constituency.
In fact, Mr. Marcos’ campaign can be best summarized as an exercise in nostalgist public relations, with unprecedented success. The term Maharlika also encapsulates the Marcos family’s aristocratic projection, if not royalist pretensions, during its decades-old reign.
Meanwhile, the sovereign wealth fund proposal also reflects the technocratic posturing of the current president, who studied at Wharton and Oxford, as well as the presidential son, Sandro, who was trained at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Interestingly, no less than presidential sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, has correctly exposed the paucity of the headline-grabbing proposal, which makes lots of sense in nations with huge export earnings and foreign exchange surplus. To optimize huge savings, avoid the so-called “Dutch disease,” and cushion against another Asian financial crisis, many prosperous nations have established sovereign wealth funds.
But import-driven and fiscally squeezed nations such as the Philippines don’t have the luxury of substantial sovereign bets in an era of “polycrisis” and hyper-uncertainty. And we have yet to streamline our pension system and related government financial institutions.
Politically speaking, however, the sum of technocratic posturing and nostalgist populism is likely larger than its parts. The immense popularity of the former president, who left behind an economically drained and politically polarized nation, has shown that in our era of dissonance and disinformation the tried-and-tested art of performative governance trumps sound, evidence-based policy discourse.
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