Bongbong makes a move

Bongbong makes a move

The son of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos has set his sights on the country’s second-highest office in the coming elections

It is perhaps a little unfair to say that only in the Philippines would the people consider electing a politician known by the otherwise clownish name of ‘Bongbong’. But equally, and arguably more fairly, in very few places but the Philippines would voters consider electing as vice-president the unapologetic son of a corrupt and brutal dictator.

Such is the case with Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jnr, the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the president deposed in 1986 in what was dubbed the ‘People Power’ revolution. Bongbong is now equal leading candidate in the race to become the Philippines vice-president in the country’s 9 May elections.

This is a country in which oligarchy tends to dominate and in which family dynasties and corruption remain dominant fixtures in politics. In a field of six candidates, polling showed that Bongbong had about a quarter of the votes, running neck and neck with the son of a former agriculture minister, Francis ‘Chiz’ Escudero.

Both vice-presidential aspirants are well ahead of another unlikely vice-presidential candidate, Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan. Honasan is best remembered for launching a series of attempted coups in the 1980s against President Cory Aquino, who had succeeded Marcos Snr.

Granted Amnesty in 1992, Honasan went on to have a successful political career, being elected Senator. He is currently under investigating for corruption.

Distorted history

Marcos has been unapologetic about his father’s dictatorship and corruption, brushing off queries by saying that history should be left to history teachers. Hundreds of academics at Ataneo University responded by publishing a stinging critique of Bongbong’s ‘willful distortion of history’ and of Marcos Snr’s period in office, including identifying his extensive corruption, economic mismanagement and widespread human rights abuses.

Victims of Marcos Snr’s period of martial law have also sworn to ‘hound’ the son for refusing to acknowledge the sins of his father. Bongbong has remained, however, unfazed.

Indeed, in his campaign for the vice-presidency, Bongbong has focused on those areas that received the greatest benefit from his father’s time in office and where his memory is held in more positive regard. While this is focused on the Marcos stronghold of northern Luzon island, there are also pockets of support around metro Manila that benefited from new housing programs and similar social welfare programs, and on the violence-ridden island of Mindanao.

Ordinarily, a vice-presidential candidate would only play a supporting role to a presidential candidate. In Bongbong’s case, almost the opposite is true. Indeed, in response to criticism of his candidature by President Benigno Aquino, Bongbong said: ‘I feel like I’m already a presidential candidate.’

Bongbong is running mate of presidential aspirant Miriam Defensor Santiago, a former agrarian reform minister under President Cory Aquino. Santiago fell out with her former boss over comments over dividing up the large rural estates of the wealthy Aquino and Cojuangco families, of which Aquino (nee Cojuanco) was a key part. Perhaps the ‘cleanest’ presidential candidate, Santiago was running last in the presidential polls, with around five per cent of the vote.

Despite having a poorly performing running mate, Bongbong can be elected as vice-president in his own right. At this stage, Grace Poe, the daughter of popular movie actor and 2004 presidential aspirant, Fernando Poe, is just leading the polls for the presidency, ahead of current vice-president Jejomar Binay.

One of Bongbong’s personal advantages in running for the vice-presidency is that he inherited significant wealth accumulated by his father during his 21 years period as president

Binay is being investigated for extensive corruption. Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte is also a leading presidential contender. Duterte has been linked to death squads and numerous extra-judicial killings in the Mindanao city. He is just ahead of Mar Roxas, the grandson of Manuel Roxas, who was first president of the independent Philippines and a scion of the Roxas ‘hacienda’ dynasty, also known for its extensive corruption as well as engendering a peasant rebellion.

One of Bongbong’s personal advantages in running for the vice-presidency is that he inherited significant wealth accumulated by his father during his 21 years period as president. Of the approximately $10 billion that Marcos and his cronies were said to have corruptly accumulated, only $4 billion has been recovered. Marcos Snr’s wife, Imelda, claims she only has $22 million, still making her officially the second richest politician in the Philippines.

War lord support

Unsurprisingly for oligarchic politics, Bongbong enjoys the support of northern Philippines ‘war lord’ Luis Singson, who in 2001 was central to ending the presidency of Joseph Estrada. For those who raise an eyebrow at Bongbong’s name, Singson also supported another politician, a short distance away in Ilocos Sur, Singon’s cousin, Vincent Crisologo, known as ‘Bingbong’. Ilocos Sur is locally known as ‘Ambush Alley’ due to their past mutual activities.

Bongbong is also supported by his sister, Imee Marcos, who is governor of the Marcos heartland Ilocos Norte province. As with other Marcos family members who have questionable pasts, Imee has been investigated for hiding large caches of wealth in offshore accounts.

The Marcos siblings’ mother, Imelda (of the notorious shoes), widow of former President Marcos, is one the province’s two representatives in Congress. Imee’s cousin, Angelo Marcos Barba, is Ilocos Norte vice-governor. Various other Marcos family members have either been governor or congressional representative for Ilocos Norte dating back to 1925. Ilocos Norte was identified during the 2010 presidential elections as having a high risk of election-related violence.

Other supporters of Bongbong’s campaign include local political leaders who benefited from the Marcos period in office, some of whom have remained in power or whose family members now hold office. Apart from the ‘solid north’, Bongbong has also drawn support from the southern end of Manila Bay as well as from across the violence-prone, war lord-riven island of Mindanao.

Within the Philippines’ profoundly compromised political setting, Bongbong’s candidature might not, after all, appear so strange. What perhaps is strange is that the Philippines continues to have a political system that, while removed from the worst excesses of the Marcos era, remains mired in narrow elite control with political office handed from one family member to another as though a personal possession, ridden with endemic corruption and, especially at the local level, high levels of violence.

Within such a twisted political setting, Bongbong’s tilt for the vice-presidency looks positively normal. Perhaps the only surprise would have been if he did not run for such office. Even the presidency itself may also be within his grasp one day.

Damien Kingsbury’s book Politics in Contemporary Southeast Asia will be published by Routledge later this year.

Featured image
Bongbong Marcos campaigning in Tondo, Manila. Bongbong Marcos Flickr

Damien Kingsbury is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University and Coordinator of the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission.

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