The 2022 Philippine general election has been one of the most divisive in the country’s history and attracted perhaps its highest ever voter turnout. This is largely due to the identity of the president-elect: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos Jr. Rallying under the UniTeam electoral alliance, alongside running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio, the man popularly known as BBM garnered over 31 million votes on 9 May—not only far surpassing every other candidate, but attaining a landslide victory, with a majority almost unheard of in recent memory. Despite scattered allegations of vote-buying, there’s as yet little proof of glaring irregularities, which suggests that this result reflects the will of the people.While the results were celebrated by his supporters on the streets and on social media, there have already been protests across the country—both from young supporters of the runner-up, outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo (who received 14.8 million votes), and from aging activists who personally witnessed the years of dictatorial martial law under Ferdinand Marcos Sr., which began with Proclamation No. 1081 on 21 September 1972. Although we have yet to discover the full ramifications of BBM’s victory and much could still happen before he’s formally inaugurated on 30 June, what’s certain is that for the first time in over a generation a Marcos is on the cusp of power.
But, given the family’s notoriety, how did the Marcoses go from being disgraced after the 1986 People Power Revolution (a nonviolent uprising that finally brought down Marcos Sr.), to once again occupying the summit of Filipino politics? And, more importantly, what comes next? As soon as President Corazon Aquino allowed the family to return from their Hawaiian exile in 1991, they began reconsolidating their power and reasserting their hold over the Ilocos region in northern Luzon (the nucleus of the so-called “Solid North”). Former first lady Imelda Marcos continued to exert a strong influence and some of her descendants served in government (BBM’s sister, Imee, is a senator). Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte even had the late dictator (who died in exile in 1989) reburied in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (“Cemetery of Heroes”) in 2016, in spite of vocal objections.
Many have remarked on the improbability of this resurgence. But the Marcoses have spent years rebranding their image, especially on social media. As early as 2014, according to an investigative report, narrative accounts and videos depicting the martial law years as a golden age of order and prosperity (known as the Bagong Lipunan or “New Society”) were gaining traction online. Such content often downplays or omits reports of the human rights abuses and kleptocratic escapades that characterised the first Marcos’ reign, repeats urban legends about the family’s wealth, or—as in the case of pundits like Manila Times journalist Rigoberto Tiglao—lashes out at critics and opposition figures as anti-Filipino (accusing them of everything ranging from corruption to subservience to foreign powers). These efforts—including BBM’s TikTok account—helped bolster BBM’s popularity in time for the 2022 elections.
Another possible factor in BBM’s victory has been the failure of the education system, whose shortcomings I also touch upon in this Areo article. Whether this is the result of institutional neglect or inconsistent standards, young Filipinos are becoming less aware of their own history, including the events of Marcos Sr.’s rule. As Jane Bautista has observed, classroom coverage of the martial law years has generally involved little more than memorizing dates and proclamation numbers instead of critical scrutiny—if that period is covered at all. There has been a concerted effort on the part of educators, activists and others who lived through that period to increase historical awareness through the archival data in the Martial Law Museum, books like Primitivo Mijares’ The Conjugal Dictatorship and films such as Dekada ’70 (The Seventies) (2002) and The Kingmaker (2019). There is no lack of available material on the events of that era and the dynasty’s subsequent actions. Yet Sen. Imee Marcos was probably right when, in 2018, she argued that the younger generations have “moved on.” As the scholar Reuel Caricativo has lamented, “most Filipinos have chosen not to reckon with the dark chapters of our history.”
Historical amnesia and fake news can’t fully explain these election results, though. It’s inaccurate to paint those who support BBM as ignorant lackeys, just as it is unfair to frame the opposition as an elitist echo-chamber. One other factor has played a major role in Marcos’ ascendancy: a general disillusionment with liberal democracy (if not a belief in its outright failure). Those who took part in the 1986 People Power Revolution hoped that the perennial issues of poverty, graft and corruption would be resolved and that the average man could finally be free. Much progress has been made since then: partly because of the reforms and liberties enshrined by the 1987 Constitution and partly because of the economic changes that made the country one of the fastest growing markets in Asia by 2016. However, these positive developments remain stymied by social inequality, government corruption and nepotism, and the paucity of mechanisms that promote accountability. This has fuelled cynicism about politics and stoked the sense of having been excluded from power, prevalent among the youth, the impoverished masa (“masses”) and even among members of the upper classes from outside traditionally dominant regions like Manila. To those who grew up long after the rallying cries that brought down the dictator had died away, and even to some of those who were there, lofty statements about liberal democracy can ring hollow.
In hindsight, the fact that Duterte was able to ascend to power in 2016, in spite of the reformist and anti-corruption efforts of the late Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, was glaringly indicative of this dissatisfaction with the political establishment. As Marco Garrido has argued, though many Filipinos still dread any return to martial law, there’s a prevailing sense that a re-evaluation and reimagining of the political landscape is long overdue, even if it means entertaining an illiberal form of democracy—which they hope will be free from corruption. It’s little wonder that BBM has been successfully able to exploit people’s disenchantment. Though to view the new Marcos administration as an inevitable reversion to dictatorship is premature.
The election of 2022 is not a repeat of what transpired in 1972. While BBM has in the past been unapologetic about his family name, he’s not a carbon copy of Marcos Sr.: he neither shares his father’s brilliance, nor can he be blamed for the worst martial law era abuses. There are also more eyes on him, both at home and abroad, than before—thanks to the same social media platforms that helped propel him to the top. Meanwhile, although Robredo’s election campaign failed, the grassroots Pink Movement she inspired—which unites a coalition ranging from conservative Catholics to LGBT activists and militant labour campaigners—is slated by analysts to remain a potent force. Given the sizable numbers that support this nascent opposition, it’s clear that People Power still has the power to rally support, even if that may seem like cold comfort in the short term.
These are murky waters. For those who do not want us to forget what happened in the martial law era, it’s no longer enough to simply double down on the same talking points, fact-check the Marcos narrative, or extoll the virtues of democratic reform. The opposition should not be tempted to further antagonize their countrymen, which will just increase polarisation. Rather, they need to lay the groundwork for positive changes that would benefit all Filipinos. This probably means biding their time until the next election—or even until the next generation comes of age, to ensure that those changes stick.
As for the president-elect, he faces the prospect of running an increasingly divided and hyperpartisan nation that’s still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether Marcos is simply in this to assert his perceived birth right, or genuinely wants the world to judge him “not by my ancestors, but by my actions,” he and his supporters face an uphill battle if they want to make unity more than just a slogan. The alternative is to let history repeat itself—and we know how that ends.