As the temperature soared, Filipinos lined up for almost a kilometer to enter an elementary school in central Manila to cast their votes. Pop-up stalls sold water, mango shakes and even yakitori as music blared from cars and bikes. Despite the festive air, the task they — and tens of millions across the sprawling island republic — were engaged in was deadly serious: determining whether a brutal dictator’s family would return to helm the country.
The last time a man named Marcos lived at the presidential palace, he packed his bags in a hurry. That was 1986, and a US helicopter was waiting to whisk him toward exile in Hawaii. This was after the US withdrew support for his bankrupt and discredited rule, amid a popular uprising and defections from the army.
Now, Ferdinand Marcos Jr has triumphed in the Philippine presidential election, held on Monday, based on unofficial tallies. His nearest opponent, Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo, trailed by a substantial margin. As appalling as this might seem to the outside world, and a notable minority within the strategically important archipelago, it is hardly a shock.
Illustration: Mountain People
Marcos Jr, known as Bongbong, has consistently led in polls — and managed to keep that advantage by saying little specific about his plans. Nor are dynasties new in Philippine politics. The two presidents prior to incumbent Rodrigo Duterte were children of former heads of state. Bongbong’s running mate, Sara Duterte, is daughter of the outgoing leader. The clan likely covets the top job again after Bongbong’s tenure.
For all the dismay at Marcos Jr’s ascent — and applause from his admirers — the world Bongbong must contend with is very different from that of his father. The constitution that was drawn up after 1986 has seen largely free and fair elections, and presidents can only serve for a limited time; they cannot run for a second six-year term. The country is much more integrated into the world economy than it was a half-century ago, when the elder Marcos imposed martial law.
How would international markets react to a shutdown of democracy? They would probably need to be closed for at least a while and substantial controls on capital imposed, with predictable outrage and likely financial dislocation.
China’s economy was largely insignificant for much of Marcos Sr’s time, and its Communist rulers were strategically unadventurous. Neither is the case today. For of all its travails with COVID-19, China is the planet’s biggest manufacturer and exporter. Beijing’s ships harass Filipino fishermen — and bump up against the US Navy — in the South China Sea.
It was in talking to fishermen on the northwest coast of Luzon shortly before the pandemic that I first met Marcos nostalgia. He was a great man, they said, and the Philippines was respected then. When I inquired about mass arrests, the looting of national accounts and a debt spiral, I was waved off. They would not hear of it.
Neither would some of Marcos Jr’s admirers today. Gerald Merandilla, 31, who runs his father’s tire business, was happy to plaster Bongbong posters over the wall of his shop. He said he was not bothered by skulduggery of the past. The country needs strong leadership, he said, and he imagined Bongbong would provide it. Is he worried by the family history?
“I wasn’t born yet,” he said with a shrug.
It was typical of the response of dozens of Marcos supporters I spoke with over the past few days. They explained away the bad stuff by dint of their youth and yet somehow visualize it as a golden era.
Marlou Cortes, 25, thought that the younger Marcos would take it upon himself to cleanse the family stain.
“There will be no return to martial law,” he told me as he lined up to vote in Manila. “He will rebuild the legacy and clear the name.”
Cortes claimed that Marcos Sr’s successors have unfairly spun his two decades in charge into a kind of morality play. Such views make supporters of Robredo despair.
“I am worried,” said retail worker Jennifer, 29, who did not want to provide her last name. She showed an inked index finger to demonstrate she voted, and wore a pink T-shirt to indicate her support for Robredo.
Students Angeline Oreta, Hannah Ponce and Anne Palomares, who went door-to-door last week for Robredo, were worried about the barrage of online propaganda that has dominated this election.
“It’s built upon layers of misinformation,” Palomares said of Marcos Jr’s campaign. “We have the education. Other youths don’t have the same advantages. We have the information about what really happened and we need to counter the misinformation.”
Robredo signs abounded in Manila, but driving north from the capital on Sunday there were fewer Robredo posters and more banners for Marcos. The urban, rural and cultural divides that have wracked politics in the US and Europe also have a place in Southeast Asia.
It is hard to believe that Marcos could do much for some of the communities I saw that lived in squalid villages in the province of Tarlac, a region that produced two presidents — and a martyred opposition leader — from the Aquino family. Nevertheless, posters for Marcos and Duterte were ubiquitous.
Preparations for a massive Robredo rally near the Peninsula Hotel in Manila’s financial district saw a wave of pink inundate the building on Saturday. Pink hair, balloons, water bottles and backpacks dotted the spacious lobby. Some fans even dressed as Princess Leia and Han Solo, and wore pink stars. At the pool, pink swimsuits, beach balls and bathing caps were everywhere.
A giant Robredo poster occupied the front of an office tower along one of the main avenues in central Manila, right next to shiny fleet of Marcos emblazoned coaches. People vote, not surveys, the pink sign proclaimed. For all the enthusiasm and idealism of her backers, the people have voted. The hereditary nature of politics looks entrenched for another six years, or 12.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for economics. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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