Arm in arm, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and Sara Duterte Carpio, children of two despotic leaders who ruled the Philippines three decades apart, walked down the aisle at a secluded garden venue south of Manila on Nov. 11.
It wasn’t their wedding, but that of the daughter of a political ally. Yet the scene foreshadowed a political pairing this week that united the authoritarian mythologies surrounding their strongmen fathers—the deceased dictator Ferdinand Marcos and current president Rodrigo Duterte, respectively.
At the wedding, Marcos Jr and Duterte Carpio stole the limelight from the newlyweds. Duterte Carpio had just withdrawn her bid for reelection as mayor of her bailiwick Davao City, a strong indication that she would run for higher office. Word then was she had her eyes on the presidency, in a bid to extend her family’s rule over the country.
Marcos Jr, meanwhile, already was running for president—the culmination of a decades-long effort to cement his family’s comeback since the ousting of his father via the People Power Revolution in 1986.
Most observers expected Duterte Carpio to take on Marcos Jr and battle it out for the top post. But, as some speculated, either of them could also slide down to vice president and run in tandem. It was a toss-up, with different opinion polls having either of them as the frontrunner for both positions.
But Marcos indicated he wouldn’t budge, and Duterte Carpio knew better than to face off with a key ally. When Duterte Carpio finally filed her candidacy for vice president on Nov. 13, Marcos Jr’s party, Partido Federal, immediately “adopted” her as his running mate.
His daughter’s move appeared to rankle Rodrigo Duterte, presenting an obstacle to his plan to keep the presidential post within his realm of influence. He immediately ordered his right-hand man to run for president, and announced he would file a bid to oppose his daughter for the vice presidency. Ultimately, he decided to run for a Senate seat in a last-ditch effort to remain in national politics.
It may all seem confusing to the uninitiated, but with scions and proxies of despots among the strongest contenders for top government posts at this May’s general election, what’s clear is the Philippines risks sinking deeper into autocratic rule.
Marcos Jr and Duterte Carpio, in particular, are uniting their support bases in a country that’s been swept by a wave of autocratic populism that began with Rodrigo Duterte’s election in 2016, propelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the Marcos dictatorship rooted in misinformation and historical revisionism.
The pair is a “tandem of the country's worst spoiled brats hailing from the worst political dynasties,” said Percival Cendaña, a leader from the progressive activist group Akbayan.
They are, however, the tandem to beat, according to opinion surveys. This is despite the Marcos family’s legacy of kleptocracy and state-sponsored killings that have lingered since their ousting, and which Rodrigo Duterte took to new heights.
“It’s a crisis in the democratization process in the Philippines,” Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, told VICE World News. “To [elect] a member of the family that’s been identified with our authoritarian past that we threw away in 1986 would mean a restoration of that kind of rule. It’s a step backwards.”
With the country still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its worst economic recession since World War II, experts warn that the next elections will mean life or death for many Filipinos.
“We’re in for a dismal future, precisely because the electoral system is not designed to be foolproof,” Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist with the Ateneo de Manila University, told VICE World News. “There are no systems in place that keep it from being hijacked by dynasties, patrons, and opportunists.”
Perceiving the threat to their democracy, many Filipinos have opposed Marcos Jr’s bid for power alongside Duterte Carpio. A group of survivors of atrocities during the 1965-1986 Marcos dictatorship marched to the electoral commission headquarters in Manila on Nov. 17 to file a petition to disqualify Marcos Jr from the election—the third thus far challenging his candidacy.
The group of prominent activists and civic leaders, which calls itself the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law, argues that Marcos Jr is ineligible for public office because he was convicted of tax evasion in 1997.
“The Dutertes and the Marcoses are making a full mockery of the elections by turning it into a circus,” the group said in a statement. “By letting the children of two despots run as a tandem, these two families are only consolidating their powers for the sole purpose of escaping accountability.”
Government records put the total stolen by the Marcos family through official corruption during their 21-year reign at between $5 billion and $10 billion, of which only a fraction has been recovered. The regime left the economy in a shambles and the bureaucracy corruption-plagued, while the government still has an active agency specifically tasked with recovering the family’s ill-gotten wealth.
Political violence was also a mainstay of Marcos’ rule, with Amnesty International counting 3,257 extrajudicial killings, some 35,000 cases of torture, 70,000 arbitrary incarcerations, and 77 people who just “disappeared” during the regime. Most of the victims were dissidents and personalities critical of the government.
As they’ve crept back into politics, the Marcos family has sought to erase all these issues from public memory. Investigations have revealed their use of disinformation networks, mostly online, aiming to whitewash their image. The family narrative omits their regime’s atrocities while playing on nostalgia for the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when the family styled itself as a kind of royal family.
Veejay Aragon, a businessman in Cebu City, is one such voter longing for a return to that time. He does not believe the Marcos dictatorship was a dark period in Philippine history.
“My family who were alive at the time, they’re saying life was good then. Life was OK. Everything was in place,” Aragon told VICE World News. “The trouble was only in Manila, among those opposing the government. People just generalized after that.”
Trying times during and after the dictatorship forced many Filipinos to find work abroad. Aragon worked in the Middle East for 11 years, then came home in 2019. He blames the Philippines’ lack of progress on the leaders who succeeded Marcos Sr.
“I left the country, see. I didn’t see myself prospering here in the Philippines. It was outside that I saw an opportunity to get ahead in life.”
Marcos Jr, Aragon says, can bring about the level of development he saw in the wealthy countries he worked in. Marcos Sr had a penchant for flashy infrastructure such as highways and government centers, and this reputation now works to his son’s advantage.
“It’s his platforms that made me choose him. He’s a Marcos, yes, but my choice is not based on that.”
But the credentials and track record of the younger Marcos remain questionable. He and his sister Imee, currently a senator, have falsely claimed earning degrees from prestigious Western universities like Oxford, Wharton, and Princeton.
“Bongbong’s so-called legacy is built on lies, deceit, and corruption. He lived a lavish life and directly benefited from the ill-gotten wealth plundered by his family,” said Cendaña, the activist. “He continues to lie about his education, taxes and fake achievements.”
Marcos Jr became a senator in 2010, but he was unable to produce any landmark piece of legislation by his departure in 2016. “It wasn’t a stellar career as a legislator,” Atienza said.
Sara Duterte Carpio, meanwhile, has never held a national government post, but has alternated with her father as either mayor or vice mayor of Davao City for over a decade, where she adopted a similarly merciless style of leadership.
“We cannot separate Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao City, and her father, President Rodrigo Duterte, because if you look at her accomplishments, she has not really built anything on her own,” Dindo Manhit, president of the Stratbase ADR Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told VICE World News.
“Just like Marcos Jr—he cannot separate himself from his father,” he continued. “Let’s be factual about it—there’s no reason for them to be running if they’re not building on the legacy of their fathers.”
The jostling within the Duterte-Marcos alliance has also revealed a chink in their otherwise formidable armor—a strained father-daugher relationship, as well as a political alliance based on convenience rather than kinship or shared ideals.
“Why settle for vice president when you’re topping the surveys for president?” Rodrigo Duterte said in a media interview on Nov. 14, claiming his daughter did not consult him about her plans.
The reason behind Rodrigo Duterte’s frustration is clear. A Duterte Carpio presidency would have potentially shielded him from an impending investigation by the International Criminal Court into his war on drugs, which has seen the killings of at least 6,000 people per official figures, but as many as 30,000 according to rights watchdogs.
Although Marcos Jr is an ally, questions remain as to whether he would stand up to the ICC for Duterte’s sake. Having thus far supported Marcos Jr, whose family backed his 2016 campaign, Duterte now appears to be distancing himself from his former benefactor.
“Not once did you hear me say I’d go for Marcos,” Duterte said in the Nov. 14 interview. He went on to accuse Marcos Jr of being “pro-communist,” citing it as the reason he could not support his erstwhile ally.
Instead of Marcos Jr, Duterte gave his blessing to Senator Bong Go, his longtime right-hand man, as his preferred successor—accompanying him when he filed his bid for the presidency on Nov. 13. Go, whose fledgling political career is built entirely on his association with Duterte, is more likely to stay loyal to him than Marcos Jr.
With Duterte’s endorsement, Go could take a substantial slice from Marcos Jr’s support.
“The turn of events will divide their support base,” Cornelio said, looking ahead to the start of the customary election-season mudslinging. “Their political campaigns will have to create a new and more convincing narrative to sustain loyalty.”
Other presidential candidates may end up benefiting, Cornelio said, particularly former movie star Manila Mayor Francisco Moreno, and former police general Senator Panfilo Lacson. These two have selectively praised and panned Duterte’s administration, careful not to antagonize his support base.
“They can present themselves as the more reliable alternatives. Among all presidential candidates, these two can appeal to the pro-Duterte and pro-Marcos crowd,” Cornelio said.
Atienza says Senator Manny Pacquiao, the former boxing champion, could get a boost in his presidential campaign, too. After a highly publicized falling out with Duterte, Pacquiao recently reconciled with the president.
“These three candidates are trying to get some of the pro-Duterte supporters because they know [the Duterte-Marcos camp] is divided,” Atienza said. “They hope to capitalize on votes to be claimed from the pro-Duterte camp, so they don’t explicitly say they’re anti-Duterte.”
But in a field dominated by authoritarians, opportunists and pragmatists, only one presidential candidate identifies as directly opposing Duterte and everything he represents: Leni Robredo, the current vice president and the only woman among aspiring presidents.
Hounded by smear campaigns by pro-Duterte quarters, Robredo lagged behind most of the other candidates in early surveys. In the latest poll, however, she surged past Lacson, Pacquiao, and Moreno, placing second behind Marcos Jr, whom she narrowly defeated in 2016 for the number two post.
Since declaring her presidential bid in early October, Robredo has seen a groundswell of support, largely driven by her call for sensible governance and wider frustration with Duterte’s botched response to the pandemic. Despite Duterte stripping her office of financial support, Robredo successfully mounted pandemic response programs through tie-ups with local governments and private groups.
“It’s a new social movement tactic,” Atienza said of Robredo’s campaign, which has drawn large support, much of it unsolicited, from volunteers. “I don’t know how far that will work, but it’s a relatively new thing in Philippine politics.”
For some Filipino voters, the red flags waving in a Duterte-Marcos alliance are inescapable, saying it speaks to both family’s thirst for power.
“Why would you perpetuate yourself in power if you genuinely want to serve the country?” said B de Vera, an artist and freelance sales consultant in Manila, when asked about the tandem.
“For me, it’s self-serving,” she told VICE World News. De Vera worries that if the pair got elected, it would plunge the country even deeper into corruption.
“I’ve been wondering what my plan B would be in case [Marcos Jr] does win. I’ll be honest—I will not want to stay here anymore. I know a lot of the taxes that I’ll pay will end up in their pockets, and that’s not just an opinion anymore,” she said.
“It’s his lack of integrity that worries me the most.”
De Vera plans to vote for Robredo mainly because she is the only candidate who seems able to take criticism constructively, she says.
“I know she can do the job, and if ever she can’t, I don’t think she will silence us if we voice that,” De Vera said.
For now, many Filipinos’ hopes of averting a slide into autocratic rule remain largely pinned on Robredo, who has been dogged by her association with the Liberal Party, which Duterte portrays as a detached, elitist establishment. In response, Robredo is running as an independent candidate, which conveys “a message that she is open to working with everybody,” Atienza said.
But ultimately, the Philippines must wean itself from personality-oriented politics, says Cornelio, if it is to prevent despots from seizing power again.
“Even if people find hope in certain figures like Robredo and her rational disposition, she is just one person in the playing field,” he said, adding that it’s too early to call the race.
“What I can say, though, is that from hereon, we will see the campaigns become more heated and even divisive.”
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.