Why Corruption Thrives in the Philippines

A Marcos might soon be back in power in Manila. That’s because political dynasties are more powerful than parties.

By , a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Virginia, where he studied Philippine politics and corruption.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. attends his mother Imelda Marcos's 90th birthday celebration in Manila, Philippines, on July 1, 2019. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ineligible for reelection, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.—widely known as “Bongbong”—is poised to win a landslide victory at the polls on May 9. His father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled as a dictator for 14 years under martial law, was known for his big infrastructure projects but also for his enormous corruption. (The World Bank estimates he stole between $5 billion and $10 billion over the course of his rule.) Marcos Jr., in turn, has been accused of graft and convicted of tax evasion.  

So what accounts for Marcos Jr.’s popularity in spite of his legacy of malfeasance? Like voters everywhere, Filipinos say they don’t support corruption. In fact, 86 percent of Filipinos surveyed in 2020 by Transparency International called corruption in government a big problem. One famous scandal involved members of congress funneling money to phony nongovernmental organizations in exchange for kickbacks in what is known widely as the pork barrel scam and which came to light in July of 2013. Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman and the convicted ringleader of the scheme, claimed Marcos Jr. was involved, although he denied any knowledge and said his signature on forms releasing money to fake NGOs was forged.  

In a political system dominated by powerful families, corrupt politicians can still succeed. Dynasties are so influential that they have largely replaced political parties as the bedrock of Philippine politics. Politicians commonly jump from one party to another, making party labels meaningless. In a country where parties come and go overnight, voters look to families to evaluate candidates.

With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ineligible for reelection, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.—widely known as “Bongbong”—is poised to win a landslide victory at the polls on May 9. His father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled as a dictator for 14 years under martial law, was known for his big infrastructure projects but also for his enormous corruption. (The World Bank estimates he stole between $5 billion and $10 billion over the course of his rule.) Marcos Jr., in turn, has been accused of graft and convicted of tax evasion.  

So what accounts for Marcos Jr.’s popularity in spite of his legacy of malfeasance? Like voters everywhere, Filipinos say they don’t support corruption. In fact, 86 percent of Filipinos surveyed in 2020 by Transparency International called corruption in government a big problem. One famous scandal involved members of congress funneling money to phony nongovernmental organizations in exchange for kickbacks in what is known widely as the pork barrel scam and which came to light in July of 2013. Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman and the convicted ringleader of the scheme, claimed Marcos Jr. was involved, although he denied any knowledge and said his signature on forms releasing money to fake NGOs was forged.  

In a political system dominated by powerful families, corrupt politicians can still succeed. Dynasties are so influential that they have largely replaced political parties as the bedrock of Philippine politics. Politicians commonly jump from one party to another, making party labels meaningless. In a country where parties come and go overnight, voters look to families to evaluate candidates.

The history of the Philippine elite—and why voters continue to uphold their power—has colonial roots. 

Over the past four years, I have examined the impact of political dynasties on election outcomes in the Philippines and analyzed the results of 10 election cycles since 1992 involving 500,000 candidates. The results may help explain the Marcos family’s political staying power. Despite being chased out of the country when Marcos Sr. fell from power in 1986, the family bounced back to political prominence in only a few years: Marcos Jr. became a governor in 1998 and a senator in 2010. Imee Marcos later took on his former role as governor and is currently a senator, having been succeeded as governor by her own son Matthew Manotoc in 2019.     

My research shows that, when given a choice, Philippine voters are less likely to vote for corrupt politicians. After accounting for a candidate previously holding office—since incumbents are more likely to be reelected and more likely to face corruption charges—candidates indicted for corruption are 5 percent to 7 percent less likely to be elected. This is similar to how voters react to corruption in other countries. In Brazil, which also suffers from substantial corruption, researchers Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan showed that in the 2004 election, when there was evidence that a mayor had engaged in corruption on one occasion, that mayor was 4.6 percent less likely to be reelected.

Images of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos at an election rally in the Philippines

A supporter holds pictures of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his wife Imelda Marcos as Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte-Carpio take part in an election rally in Caloocan, Philippines, on Feb. 19.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

But Philippine voters don’t punish politicians from large political dynasties even when they’ve been indicted for corruption. Ronald Mendoza and researchers at the Ateneo School of Government calculated that, as of 2019, 80 percent of governors, 67 percent of members of the House of Representatives, and 53 percent of mayors had at least one relative in office. These rich and powerful family networks can protect politicians from real accountability and keep reform at bay. 

The history of the Philippine elite—and why voters continue to uphold their power—has colonial roots. When the United States seized control of the Philippines in 1898, it pledged to give land to the poor. The opposite happened. The United States spent $7 million—almost as much as it paid for Alaska in the 1860s—to buy land from Catholic friars who had run much of the country. But the land was sold at prices well above what the poor could afford. The United States also instituted a system of land titles. This could have helped protect poor farmers from being dispossessed, but the land titles were so expensive and complicated to acquire that only the well-off got titles. The rich were able to buy up more land, while the poor were left without titles or access to the best land. My research shows that areas in the Philippines with more land inequality and where more of these titles were issued by 1918 have a higher concentration of dynasties today.  

The United States created a system where only property owners could vote, limiting the franchise to 1 percent of the population in the 1907 legislative elections. Wealthy landowners appointed allies to run the civil service and passed laws to cement their power. For example, in 1912, the Philippine Assembly made it a crime to break a labor contract, which effectively forced sharecroppers to stay on large plantations. Don Joaquín Ortega was appointed the first governor of La Union in 1901, and 120 years later his descendants are still governors. 

Voters turn to political dynasties for a variety of reasons. Familiarity certainly helps. Families are also known for delivering pork barrel projects and even direct payouts before elections. Vote buying in the form of gifts or cash is common in the Philippines. Some dynasties have also used force to turn out votes of limited competition. In return, the ruling families tend to commission populist projects. Jinggoy Estrada, son of former President Joseph Estrada, helped build day care centers when he was mayor of San Juan. He also was twice indicted for corruption but never convicted. 

The youthfulness of the Philippine population helps obscure the truth of the Marcos dictatorship. About 70 percent are under 40 years old, compared to 51 percent in the United States. Marcos Sr. was forced out of office 36 years ago, which is well before much of the electorate was even born. Few have a recollection of martial law. 

Deeply entrenched political dynasties have hollowed out the political process, making elections not about parties or ideas but about family names.

Over the intervening years, the Marcos clan has spruced up its image: Marcos Jr. appeared as a child in a movie glorifying his father. His older sister ran a children’s TV show when Marcos Sr. was in power. Marcos Sr. projected an air of power and pride that older voters remember. In addition, current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gave the clan a boost in 2016 when he had Marcos Sr. reburied in the “Cemetery of Heroes” in Manila.  

Marcos Jr.’s campaign also appeals to nostalgia among voters who lived during the era when Marcos Sr. built new rail lines, cultural centers, hospitals, and other infrastructure projects, as well as among younger voters who have been sold on this sanitized image of the Marcos era. Some recall the martial law period as one of peace (although not for the 34,000 political dissenters whom Amnesty International estimates were tortured by the government). The Philippine economy grew rapidly during much of the Marcos period, though it ended in a steep downturn in GDP and a huge increase in government debt.  

The other major candidates running against Marcos Jr. don’t come from such important families with such deep political connections. Marcos Jr. has avoided saying much about his opponents who have attacked him and his revisionist Marcos history. This has made the campaign all about him and left his opponents looking small. Marcos Jr. has also played up his alliance with the Duterte family, as the outgoing president remains widely popular despite the brutal violence of his anti-drug campaign. Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio is running for vice president, further cementing a Duterte-Marcos alliance. 

Across generations, the deeply entrenched political dynasties of the Philippines have hollowed out the political process, making elections not about parties or ideas but about family names. Powerful families date back to the Spanish period and have cemented their hold on power. While voters categorically oppose corruption, they continue to support families who deliver pork spending but do little for the long-term health of the country. Marcos Jr. has traded on carefully curated nostalgia about his father’s reign to propel himself to the presidency.

Daniel Bruno Davis is a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Virginia, where he studied Philippine politics and corruption. Twitter: @Daniel_B_Davis

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