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The past is disappearing and the future is bleak: a Philippine election reflection

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jnr has won, using a tech-savvy social media rewrite of his parents’ dictatorship and a troll army to smear his closest competitor — DR TOM SYKES reports on a society seemingly unable to leave its own dark age

FILIPINOS have been suffering the Marcos dynasty’s love of spectacle since the mid-1960s when Ferdinand and Imelda took power, presenting themselves as a glamorous Hollywoodesque couple and promising a golden age of progress and prosperity.

But away from the vanity building projects and PR stunts like staged TV reports of Imelda donating homes to the poor, they built an iron-fisted dictatorship, dropped their country into masses of debt, murdered, maimed and jailed thousands and embezzled perhaps $11 billion from state coffers.

On May 9 2022, Ferdinand and Imelda’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr, took the presidency with 56 per cent of the vote, the highest share since his dad won in 1981 — when most other parties boycotted it.

A big factor in Bongbong’s landslide was his team’s mastery of social media, particularly TikTok.

A wholesale rewriting of Philippine history — and his family’s place in it — has been achieved through short, sharp video clips portraying his parents as universally acclaimed.

Like all the most effective disinformation, these videos have a grain of truth, such as the one showing Imelda meeting Prince Charles in the early 1980s.

She would go on to give Charles a speedboat and enjoy an audience with his mother at Buckingham Palace.

By 1985 when her regime was crumbling and its atrocities were being noted privately by British diplomats and civil servants, the Foreign Office and Department of Trade and Industry nonetheless approved at least £2.5m of British arms sales to Manila.

Millions of younger Filipinos who weren’t alive in those days were hoodwinked.

As one twenty-something voter told the LA Times: “We don’t believe the history books any more. We have social media now.”

Like outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte — whose daughter Sara is now vice-president and whose father Vicente served in Marcos’s cabinet in the late 1960s — Bongbong also employed a troll army to libel his closest challenger, the liberals’ favourite Leni Robredo.

It’s believed that Bongbong’s apparatchiks deepfaked pornographic images of Robredo’s daughter Aika and circulated Facebook posts claiming that Robredo was trying to raise money for a narcotics rehab centre — a move calculated to disgrace her in the eyes of those voters who approve of Duterte’s bloody anti-drugs crackdown (40,000 dead now, say human rights groups).

But misusing modish tech isn’t the only way to win a Philippine election — old-fashioned methods such as vote-buying and polling booth intimidation still work.

Some reports claim that the desperately poor — and post-Covid 24 per cent of the population are now below the national poverty line — were paid the equivalent of $10 to stick their crosses next to Bongbong’s name.

Other bullies succeeded in the parallel elections to Congress. The Duterte Youth won over half a million votes — the reference to Hitler’s followers is deliberate, as is their choice to dress in black outfits with red armbands — and the ACT-CIS (Anti-Crime and Terrorism through Communist Involvement and Support) scored over two million.

Both organisations are quasi-fascist and keen on repressing “communists” — ie anyone who protests against government policy on justice, labour, land ownership and the environment.

But if these pro-Marcos groups helped their man win, those opposing him did too — unwittingly.

For many years tarnished by her association with post-Marcos administrations that failed to address the structural scourges of poverty and corruption and were themselves guilty of political violence, Robredo didn’t offer enough of an alternative to a Marcos-Duterte ticket.

She pledged to continue Duterte’s infrastructure-building programme as well as the more controversial drug war albeit with an emphasis on “rehabilitation” without ever spelling out what that meant.

Had she won, Filipinos may have benefited from short-term relief from the extra-judicial oppression — but in the longer-range it would have been business as usual.

Dr Tom Sykes has reported on the Philippines for Private Eye, Monocle, Red Pepper, the Morning Star and Southeast Asia Globe. His latest book Imagining Manila: Literature, Empire and Orientalism is published by Bloomsbury.

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