Philippines: democracy in mourning
The Philippines’ 9 May elections gave victory to a fearsome alliance of two authoritarian dynasties. The son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was elected president while the daughter of current authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte was chosen as vice-president. Their victory was the fruit of a long disinformation campaign aimed at rehabilitating the memory of the dictatorship era by claiming fictitious achievements and minimising the suffering caused by its systematic repression of opposition and dissent. Civil society will have to remain united to confront likely intensifying repression and work to develop an attractive and progressive counter-narrative.
Democrats and human rights advocates in the Philippines are in mourning. The enormous efforts they invested in trying to change their country’s course proved to be in vain. Hopes for a progressive turn away from the bloody right-wing populist rule of President Rodrigo Duterte did not materialise.
Two dynasties for the price of one
Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos was elected president on 9 May, three and a half decades after his father and namesake was overthrown and sent into exile by a peaceful mass uprising that ended a long period of authoritarian rule. His vice president is Sara Duterte, daughter of the outgoing iron-fist ruler; her father is currently under investigation for crimes against humanity committed in the course of his so-called ‘war on drugs’ in which thousands have been killed.
This formidable dynastic alliance was challenged by Vice President Leni Robredo, a lawyer and social activist running on a platform of transparency, good governance and human rights. But against the relentless disinformation machine that presented the Marcos dictatorship as a golden age and depicted accounts of repression as lies, Robredo didn’t stand a chance.
Marcos emerged the runaway winner with more than double the number of votes collected by his opponent. The campaign was however characterised by civic space restrictions that unbalanced the competition, voter manipulation through the spread of disinformation on social media and questionable electoral practices such as intimidation and vote buying.
Voices from the frontline
Marinel Ubaldo is a young climate activist, co-founder of the Youth Leaders for Environmental Action Federation and Advocacy Officer for Ecological Justice and Youth Engagement of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines.
Today is a gloomy day in the Philippines. We did our best to campaign for truth, facts and hope for the Philippines. Vice President Leni Robredo campaigned for public sector transparency and vowed to lead a government that cares for the people and bolsters the medical system.
Leni’s loss is the loss of the Philippines, not just hers. There are still too many people in the Philippines who believe Marcos’s lies. I don’t blame the masses for believing his lies; they are victims of decades of disinformation.
I fear in a few months or years we will be living under a dictatorship. Marcos may even be able to stay in power for as long as he wants. After trying to reach power for so long, he has finally won, and he won’t let go of power easily.
It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during his father’s dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen. It’s a fact that the Filipino people won’t be allowed to raise their voices; if they do so, they may risk being killed. This is what happened under martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.
This will definitely affect civil society. It will be very difficult for humanitarian workers to respond to any crisis since Marcos will likely aspire to micro-manage everything. We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased.
Regarding the specifics of policymaking, we don’t really know what the plan is. Marcos campaigned on vague promises of national unity and implied that all problems would be solved if people unite behind his leadership.
We need to ensure the international community sends out a consistent message and stands by our side when oppression starts. We also need them to be ready to rescue Filipinos if their safety is at risk. We activists fear for our lives.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Marinel. Read the full interview here.
An uneven playing field
Under Duterte’s rule, the situation for human rights defenders and journalists markedly worsened as a result of a systematic campaign of stigmatisation, intimidation, censorship and physical attacks, up to and including killings. Red-tagging – the smearing of critics as communists and terrorists – has become common practice. The 2022 campaign was marked by restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, including the filing of libel and cyber libel cases against several media outlets and journalists and the killing of a journalist, Jesus Malabanan, who covered the ‘war on drugs’.
The election season saw large-scale rallies on both sides of the political spectrum. ‘People power’, a nod to the popular revolt that ousted Marcos Sr., was a central theme of the Robredo campaign. A People’s Council unified the various grassroots campaigns mobilised on her behalf, crafting tactics and messaging to make up for its limited funding, which was no match for that of her opponents. Young activists played a starring role, going house after house to knock on doors to connect with those unreachable through social media as well as seeking to bypass the disinformation that well-resourced candidates pushed online. Groups of LGBTQI+ people, workers, academics and lawyers all pledged their support.
On the other side, Marcos and Duterte centred their campaigns – which ran separately, as the president and vice president are not elected on a single ticket – on what they marketed as their respective fathers’ legacies. A whole parallel reality emerged on social media of narratives portraying the Marcos dictatorship as an era of progress in which countless infrastructure projects were completed and life was good for everybody. The terrifying experience of life under dictatorship and martial law, constantly emphasised in the Robredo campaign, was systematically downplayed by Marcos and Duterte.
A skilful user of the populist playbook, Marcos told people just what they wanted to hear. He appealed to those disappointed with a string of administrations that failed to fulfil their expectations, promising them prosperity and a cure for the country’s problems, if only they united behind his leadership. Marcos’ insistence that he, and he alone, was the embodiment of national unity fuelled polarisation. Meanwhile little information was provided about his actual programme for government, as he refused to participate in election debates or give interviews to independent media.
Between 1972 and 1981, Marcos Sr. imposed martial law under which thousands of critics and opponents were jailed, disappeared or killed. While children should not be blamed for the sins of their parents, something Marcos Jr. repeatedly insisted on, he greatly benefited from his father’s rule: he climbed positions and became a governor, led a luxurious life and inherited an incalculable fortune plundered from public coffers.
He then went on to clean his family’s record by starting a movement calling for the revision of school textbooks, arguing that children were being taught lies about their country’s past. By the time he got elected, Marcos Jr. had spent decades engaging in historical revisionism to rebrand the family dynasty, aided by Duterte Sr., who rehabilitated Marcos Sr. as a national hero.
The fact that the Marcos family kept billions of ill-gotten dollars has never been in dispute. Following years of investigations and legal proceedings, about US$5 billion have been recovered, while an additional US$2.4 billion remains under litigation. Nor is there any doubt about the scale and systematic nature of the repression that took place under the Marcos dictatorship, which has been well documented.
It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during the Marcos dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen.
But social media disinformation campaigns succeeded in sowing doubts among many, then proceeded to turn the facts upside down. These campaigns were nothing new in the Philippines: Duterte Sr. won in 2016 with the invaluable help of online troll farms.
Fighting back with the truth
Civil society is responding to this intentional distortion of the historical record for political gain through initiatives to keep historical memory alive. One such response, the Martial Law Chronicles Project, runs a counter-campaign to debunk narratives that recast Marcos Sr. as a national hero. It provides an evidence-based account of Marcos’ 21-year despotic rule that highlights the enormous loss of life and violations of freedoms resulting from systematic repression and the contrast between the corrupt rulers´ lavish lifestyle and the poverty of millions.
When Marcos Jr. was declared the victor, people took to the streets under the banner of ‘Never Again’. Many people, motivated by concern that all traces of history would soon be erased, hurried to buy books about the dictatorship era – getting multiple copies and digitising materials to send to friends and colleagues in other countries so historical memory can be kept alive no matter what happens next.
They are right to be concerned. Marcos Jr. has already announced that Sara Duterte will be education minister. A government task force recently labelled as ‘communist’ a company publishing children’s books about the dictatorship and martial law. In response, a group of scholars launched a manifesto pledging to resist all attempt to falsify history, impose censorship or ban books.
The power of misplaced nostalgia
On 10 May, as votes were still being counted, protesters gathered outside the Commission on Elections in the capital, Manila, concerned that the technical issues experienced during the counting process meant that ballots were being tampered with. But the results were resounding: the official count gave Marcos close to 59 per cent of the vote, compared to 28 per cent for Robredo, on a very high turnout. This was an unusually high level of support.
In her bid for the vice presidency, Sara Duterte received an even bigger share of the vote – over 61 per cent – suggesting her father’s policies, including the controversial ‘war on drugs’, were popular among wide segments of voters.
Something has shifted in the Philippines’ political landscape since the previous presidential election six years ago, in which Rodrigo Duterte received 39 per cent of the vote. On that occasion, Marcos competed for the vice presidency as an independent but narrowly lost to Robredo.
Civil society activists who engaged in poll watching said they encountered many irregularities but agreed it would be a mistake to attribute the Marcos-Duterte victory simply to fraud, repression or co-optation. However intense the restrictions on civic space, and however abundant the electoral violations, it seems clear that a disinformation campaign, rewriting history to suit the authoritarian alliance, found a willing audience.
A mass of people wanted to be convinced by a narrative composed of blatant lies. These clashed head-on not only with the empirical evidence produced by historians but also with the experiences of many people who lived through those times but regardless chose to believe, voting enthusiastically for a return to a golden past that never was. As in many countries around the world, populist forces in the Philippines successfully developed nostalgia as a political project, something progressives always struggle to argue against.
For people who have seen successive administrations prove unable or unwilling to respond to their demands, disenchantment is understandable. Authoritarianism, increasingly normalised under Duterte Sr., started to be seen as a solution.
Of course authoritarianism isn’t the answer, as time will duly reveal. It won’t solve people’s pressing problems because authoritarian leaders don’t see the need to listen to people and will routinely seek to repress dissent when it comes. To defend human rights and civic space in the difficult times ahead, the defeated opposition needs to keep working to hold the government to account and speak up for those who otherwise will be silenced. Defeat is not a reason to give up, but a sign that continuing the struggle is now more necessary than ever.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Civil society and the democratic opposition should remain united to speak up with a stronger voice and keep hopes for democratic freedoms alive through the next six years.
International allies should support Filipino civil society’s efforts to counter the disinformation that is enabling democratic regression.
The international community should send clear signals that it will act if repression intensifies.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Lisa Marie David via Gallo Images