Philippines is no stranger to prominent political families with children occupying a high office previously held by a parent. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo served as President from 2001 to 2010. She was the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal, the country’s President, from 1961 to 1965. The mother of her successor Benigno Aquino III, President for six years from 2010, was Corazon Aquino who was President from 1986 to 1992. This Philippine political tradition notwithstanding, the victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, popularly known as Bongbong Marcos, in the Presidential elections held in May this year, is extraordinary; he is the son of the once reviled and hated Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the country with an iron hand for twenty-one years (1965-1986). Bongbong was sworn in as the country’s 17th President on June 30. Significantly, Sara Duterte, who was elected as Vice-President also in the May election is the daughter of Bongbong’s immediate predecessor Rodrigo Duterte who has been a controversial figure in Philippine politics. He projected himself as a strongman.
Marcos was elected President in 1965 and re-elected for a second four-year term in 1969 but in 1972 he imposed martial law and thereafter became a full-fledged dictator. He was ruthless towards his political opponents and his administration’s record of human rights violations was great. However, he became a staunch ally of the United States which overlooked his transgressions at a time of challenge to US interests in south-east Asia.
The 1950s and the next two decades were trying for the United States in south-east Asia. Myanmar, a democracy at independence went under the grip of Ne Win, an army general who took the country into isolation. Malaysia battled communist insurgency in the 1950s. Indonesia witnessed great turbulence in the mid-60s with mass killings and the targeting of communists. This led to the ouster of Sukarno, the legendary leader of the country’s independence movement and the coming to power of army general Suharto who ruled the country for three decades. He had good ties with the US. Thailand was also under dictators for the better part of these decades. But the real US challenge was in Indo-China where it battled communist North Vietnam. It lost the war in 1975 and Vietnam became united under a communist system.
Through these decades in Asia as well as other parts of the world the US, for all its commitment to human rights and freedoms, had no reluctance in supporting brutal dictatorships. In the Philippines the people suffered under Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda who was known for her bizarre extravagance. In 1986 the people revolted when Marcos tried to steal an election which he had lost. The revolt was led by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a prominent Marcos critic Benigno Aquino who was assassinated in 1983, it was widely believed at the dictator’s instigation. It was only when the US was left with no choice that it did move away from supporting Marcos. He fled the country with his family, including the 29-year-old Bongbong, to Hawai.
Marcos died in 1989 in Hawai. After that President Corazon Aquino allowed the family to return to Philippines. After Marcos had fled the country, the authorities began to document the vast amount of wealth his family had siphoned off during his rule. It was expected that the family would face the law and justice would be done. Bongbong returned to Philippines in 1991 and the next year he was elected as a member of the House of Representatives, thus continuing a controversial political career which had begun prior to his fleeing the Philippines with his father. In 1998 Bongbong was elected as governor of his family stronghold of Ilocos Norte a job he held for nine years. Later he became a senator but he lost the Vice-President’s election in 2016.
Bongbong political career shows not only the hold of political families in Philippines public life but that the people overlook the brutality of a person’s father and indeed his own; Bongbong too was accused of strong-arm tactics during his father’s rule. This phenomenon is not unique to Philippines. Indeed, in India the people punished Indira Gandhi for the excesses of the emergency in the March 1977 elections. However, in less than three short years these excesses were overlooked and she won the December 1979 election and was back in power in January 1980. Other leaders too have made political comebacks after being shown the door by the people. They include Winston Churchill and Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia who became Prime Minister for the second time when he was 92 years old.
In the past when political systems were based on monarchies then mainly sons succeeded fathers with the people having a limited role. There were revolts against a monarchy and if they succeeded than one dynasty was replaced by another and generally the incoming monarch ensured the complete elimination of his predecessor, his family and main supporters. Now the situation is different because the people have a say through elections even if they are not perfect in many countries. Why is it then that the people so easily forget the brutalities and injustices that they have suffered and once again accept a leader whom they have earlier cast aside?
While answers to this question would be a matter for social scientists to investigate but one reason is that immediate concerns of livelihood and security matter more than past injustices. Apart from this the people can also be manipulated and past ‘sins’ be whitewashed as many observers accuse Bongbong of doing. This is especially because his political record from 1992 onwards was uneven and controversial too.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.