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The Philippines’ ‘Back to the Future’ Vote

More than 35 years after the ousting of his dictator father, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks set for a landslide victory.

Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr (C) and his wife Louise (centre R) wave during a campaign rally in Taguig, Manila on April 24, 2022.
Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr (C) and his wife Louise (centre R) wave during a campaign rally in Taguig, Manila on April 24, 2022.
Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr (C) and his wife Louise (centre R) wave during a campaign rally in Taguig, Manila on April 24, 2022. JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at presidential elections in the Philippines; evacuations in Mariupol, Ukraine; and more news worth following from around the world.

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at presidential elections in the Philippines; evacuations in Mariupol, Ukraine; and more news worth following from around the world.

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The Marcos Clan Rebounds

When voters in the Philippines choose a new president on Monday, they appear ready to choose an old name, as Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr.—widely known as Bongbong” or BBM—looks set to win a landslide victory in the country of more than 110 million people.

Marcos is the namesake of his dictator father, whose two-decade grip on power ended in a popular, military-backed uprising in 1986. Marcos Sr.’s rule was infamous for its brutality following his imposition of martial law, which saw thousands of people imprisoned and tortured.

It also made his wife, Imelda, a byword for excess when her 3,000-strong shoe collection in a country experiencing extreme poverty became worldwide news. The family is estimated to have looted as much as $10 billion from the public purse during its time in power.

Yet for many voters, that past doesn’t seem to matter, given that Marcos Jr. has rebranded his father’s dictatorship as a golden era for the country. As Georgi Engelbrecht, senior analyst on the Philippines at the International Crisis Group, argues, Time has passed since the time of martial law, and if you look at the demographics, it is mostly older Filipinos who remember and are opposed to BBM.”

“The campaign has successfully set up a double standard wherein the sins of the father do not translate to the son,” Alan German, a public relations and political communications executive in Manila, the Philippines, told Nikkei Asia. “But the achievements of the father—if you even call them achievements—are inherited by the son.”

The Philippines’ famously mercurial election landscape could have looked very different. Back in October 2021, when candidates were still jostling for position, it was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, who seemed the obvious choice, polling higher than Marcos, boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, and Leni Robredo, Marcos’s main rival on Monday.

Duterte-Carpio is set to win a separate election to become the country’s vice president, ensuring the Dutertes remain close to power—and safe from the International Criminal Court, which has an open investigation into her father’s tactics in prosecuting his infamous war on drugs.

Structural and technological factors also help Marcos’s chances on Monday. As well as benefiting from a split field of nine candidates, he also faces a youthful electorate; 70 percent of the countrys population is under 40 years old, making the era of martial law a distant, or even nonexistent, memory.

That unfamiliarity has been exploited on social media, especially Facebook, where much of the myth-making and nostalgia-boosting around Marcos has taken place. As Engelbrecht notes, it “was used already years ago to rebrand the family image and name.”

Maria Ressa, the Nobel-prizewinning editor of the Rappler news site, said the power of social media has helped bend perceptions toward a Marcos victory. “He looks set to win, and the only way that is possible is because history shifted in front of our eyes,” Ressa told AFP.

“This is the problem with social media: It has allowed propaganda to flourish and literally has allowed public figures like Marcos, like [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro, to ignore [media] checks and balances and to create their own realities,” she added.

But as sociologist Marco Garrido explained in the Washington Post, a savvy rebrand can’t explain all of Marcos’s appeal. Growing frustration with the democratic process following a string of scandals and failures has voters looking for more certainty.

“Many Filipinos have come to believe that they cannot change democracy by relying on the constitution, Congress, the courts, government agencies or the ‘parliament of the streets’—people power.” Garrido writes. “They have learned through experience that these institutions are limited or can be hijacked, and thus are exploring other, decidedly less liberal avenues of political renovation.”

The unique attraction held by political dynasties, in place since the country’s past as a U.S. colony, also helps explain the Marcos resurgence. As Philippines expert Daniel Bruno Davis explored in Foreign Policy, voters tend to punish politicians indicted for corruption with reduced vote shares, but corrupt members of political dynasties—who can reward voters with local projects or even straight cash—see no such drop in support.

In a campaign where policy details have been largely in the background, it’s not clear where exactly Marcos will take the country’s foreign policy, as it finds itself stuck between the great-power rivalry of China and the United States.

Due to his time in exile in the U.S. state of Hawaii (as well as his family’s close ties to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan), Marcos is unlikely to carry the same reflexively anti-American sentiment of his predecessor. But he is also seen as more accommodating of China, which claims some of the same maritime territory as the Philippines.

In a February debate, Marcos gave little away, saying the country would “have to fly our own way” and reject the imposition of spheres of influence.

“No matter what the superpowers are trying to do, we have to work within the interest of the Philippines. We cannot allow ourselves to be part of the foreign policy of other countries. We have to have our own foreign policy,” Marcos argued.


What We’re Following Today

Evacuating Mariupol. An operation to remove civilians from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, is set to resume today, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged all measures to be taken to “get people out of these hellscapes.” Today’s efforts will mark the third time an attempt has been made to free civilians at the plant, with around 200 people believed to still remain in the complex.


Keep an Eye On

Belarus’s Ukraine role. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko signaled his dismay with the conduct of Russia’s war in Ukraine and called nuclear weapons use “unacceptable” in an interview with the Associated Press. “But I am not immersed in this problem enough to say whether it goes according to plan, like the Russians say, or like I feel it,” Lukashenko said. “I want to stress one more time: I feel like this operation has dragged on.”

France’s parliamentary race.
French President Emmanuel Macron has changed the name of his La République en Marche! party to Renaissance ahead of parliamentary elections, as he seeks to avoid a split government for his second term. The rebrand comes as a left-wing coalition of Greens, Socialists, and Communists headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise party attempt to beat both Macron’s party and the far-right National Rally party in the June contest.


Odds and Ends

American audiences are not the only ones anticipating the return of actor Tom Cruise as the Navy pilot Pete Mitchell (known as Maverick) in the upcoming sequel to the 1980s blockbuster Top Gun. Chinese spy satellites reportedly zoned in on the film’s location to get a glimpse of the Darkstar, an advanced stealth fighter jet. Unfortunately for China’s military, the jet is fictional, and satellites had focused on a full-size prop.

The new movie, which has been produced in cooperation with the U.S. military and backed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, has already courted controversy for its wardrobe changes, considered a ploy to placate China’s film censors.

In the 1986 film, Maverick’s iconic flight jacket includes the Taiwanese and Japanese flags featured prominently on the back. In the 2022 version, the flags have been replaced with ambiguous, but similarly colored symbols.

Correction, May 6, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated which branch of the U.S. armed forces actor Tom Cruise’s character flew for in the film Top Gun. He was a Navy pilot.

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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