Turning point: The Philippines in 2022
Decades from now, perspicacious scholars will likely look back at the past 12 months as a critical juncture in our country’s history. Almost exactly half a century since Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s declaration of martial law, his namesake son reassumed the throne. This year also saw, for the first time since the end of the dictatorship era, a Filipino president managing to garner a clear majority of votes.
Moreover, this year’s elections also saw the first pro-incumbency electoral victory in three decades. Fidel Ramos’ narrow triumph in 1992 was arguably the last time we saw a direct succession of similarly-minded leaders. Practically all succeeding presidents ended up on the throne by expressly running against their immediate predecessor: Joseph Estrada’s macho populism was a clear rejection of Ramos’ technocratic reformism, just as Benigno Aquino III’s good governance agenda was a direct challenge to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s business-as-usual politics.
But it was former president Rodrigo Duterte who took this distinct tradition, which found a great habitat in a nation with no real political parties, to its logical conclusion. Duterte didn’t only juxtapose himself against the outgoing Aquino administration but also framed his presidential candidacy as a referendum on the entire post-Marcos regime, which sprung out of the mélange of aspirations and contradictions of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution.
Given his flair for the dramatic, Duterte rarely shied away from portraying himself as the country’s “last card,” namely the only thing standing between “law-abiding citizens” and the impending chaos—or, in his words, a “narco-state.” By all indications, Duterte’s antics, and his distinct brand of penal populism, were a major hit with the common folks.
Despite the reliable display of incompetence from one crisis to the other—beginning with the failure to prevent few ragtag extremists from laying siege on an entire city in 2017 and all the way to the disastrous management of the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic—he maintained sky-high approval ratings. As for his beloved “drug war,” even Duterte admitted that it was a major failure.
If the Duterte presidency were a movie—or, to put it more accurately, a reality show—it would have been a blockbuster with few rivals in our history. In fact, Duterte was so popular that he couldn’t help contemplating staying in power through proxies. But this is precisely where President Marcos Jr.’s decision to run for the presidency proved highly consequential. Had the latter skipped this year’s elections, the House of Duterte would have likely fully consolidated its grip on Philippine state institutions.
By all indications, Mr. Marcos was the candidate of continuity in this year’s elections. After all, he not only teamed up with the presidential daughter (Sara) under a “UniTeam,” but he also repeatedly promised to continue the outgoing president’s key domestic and foreign policies.
Thus, Mr. Marcos’ emphatic election victory, which was met with both disbelief and awe across the political spectrum, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Looking at Mr. Marcos’ first six months in office, three things stand out. Let me briefly explain these.
First of all, his return to Malacañang marks what can be best described as the “great restoration.” After spending three decades on the relative margins of Philippine politics, the Marcoses are once again in a historic position to shape the country’s future—as well as reshape our country’s past through a well-oiled campaign of historical denialism.
Second, Mr. Marcos’ presidency has seen a “great moderation” on every key political issue: No more Duterte-style brutal counternarcotics operations, the demagogic attacks on so-called “oligarchs,” or the mindless fawning over China and Russia. While restoring ties with traditional Western allies, Mr. Marcos has skipped any discussion of constitutional change and federalism in a bid to reassure democratic partners, jittery markets, and skeptical voters.
Finally, the past six months have also been an opportunity for a “great reflection,” especially by the progressive-liberal opposition. Instead of just blaming voters, and obsessing over “disinformation” alone, it’s time for the opposition to also reflect on its own shortcomings, faulty analytics, and deracinated “thought leaders.”
Rearing a new generation of charismatic leaders should go hand in hand with solidifying grassroots networks across the country. Otherwise, the Marcoses will be on a glide path to dominating Philippine politics for another generation.
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