The Triumph of the Marcos-Duterte Leviathan

The 2022 Marcos-Duterte landslide electoral victory represents the triumph of the Old Order in the Philippines. What was in crisis and decay, as shown how voters embraced it fully in this election, can be made attractive and fresh again. The Anti-People Power Project succeeded on the ballots, but it took them more than three decades, massive resources, and political discipline to pull it off.

This is, despite the pretense of change messaging, a continuity election. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD), while he eroded democracy and human rights in the country and left Filipinos on their own during the pandemic, is ending his term as among the most popular of the Fifth Republic Presidents. Most Filipino voters have a very positive assessment of his administration and continues to support him.

PRRD’s popularity also drove demand for a presidential candidate who can do a Dutertismo 2.0. In a WR Numero survey, around 55% of the voters prefer ‘partial continuity’ while 30% of them say they want ‘full continuity’. Only 16% of the surveyed are looking for a president who will represent a total change from Dutertismo. The Marcos-Duterte tandem have clearly positioned themselves as the continuity candidates, and in fact perceived by voters as such.

And PRRD need not give his explicit endorsement to their candidacies because his role was already done even before the curtains were raised. Since 2016, he has mobilized state resources to repudiate the memories of People Power and rehabilitate the image of the Marcos family. He has repeatedly publicly talked about the rule of Ferdinand Marcos (FM) and the supposed lasting achievements of the dictatorship. PRRD ordered the burial of FM, after decades in interregnum, in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. In short, he has resurrected and infused fresh insurgent populist energies to what was then a dying brand — and this will be one of what will be his enduring insidious legacies in Philippine politics.

This wasn’t, of course, all PRRD’s doing. The Marcos family also reaped the benefits of investing in a massive online disinformation machinery that have been put into operations as early as six years ago (the on-the-ground disinformation campaigns have been in place for far longer). Pro-Marcos disinformation campaigns have dominated social media platforms popular to a cross-section of Filipino voters including Facebook and YouTube. The disinformation campaigns have been effective: my interviews with more than 50+ Marcos-Duterte voters around the country revealed that many of their voting considerations were significantly shaped by the disinformative narratives they made popular online. Many of their voters think that the Philippine martial law years was the country’s golden era, that the Marcos legacy is that of the public infrastructures people enjoy today, and that the plunder of state resources the conjugal dictatorship and their cronies committed were nothing but black propaganda.

The Marcos disinformation machinery has also systematically targeted young voters in social media platforms like TikTok. These TikTok disinformation campaigns were designed to portray the Marcos family as authentic, hip, and relatable political celebrities while downplaying the family’s leadership of some of the country’s worst cases of corruption and human rights abuses. For instance, a young voter I have talked to showed me old videos of Imelda Marcos she has ‘rediscovered’ in TikTok. In these videos, Imelda was justifying the use of government resources for her personal excesses by discussing her “uniquely Filipino philosophy of beauty”.

But all these efforts on the part of Duterte and the investments on Disinformation could have been for nothing if not for the intervention of the Coalition’s Political Elder. The Marcos-Duterte dynastic tandem represents a perfect political marriage of some of the most entrenched, formidable, and notorious political bosses and families (not to mention almost all the politically active First Families): Arroyo, Duterte, Estrada, Marcos, Romualdez, and Villar. While the marriage was inconvenient at first, as proven by PRRD’s desperate charades and tantrums, the commanding wisdom of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) prevailed. Together they stand, divided they might all end up jail mates. So she had to broker the arranged marriage.

The arranged marriage kept the House in order (at least for now), and promised to deliver an unmatched ‘unity’ machinery. And it did! The North and South proved to be as solid as expected. Many of the Coalition families have been in control of their provinces since the return of elections in the country. And among other resources, they are expected to deploy proven grassroots election machines and through it organize cash distribution, network building, and turnout discipline. The Marcos and Duterte families of Ilocos Norte and Davao City are, of course, best examples of this. The Coalition ensured a concentration of significant political resources in the Marcos-Duterte campaign including local political allies. Outside their command bailiwicks, this allowed them to corner the endorsements of incumbents in market vote-rich areas of Central Luzon, South Luzon, and Metro Manila.

There is nothing like fear of enduring another six years of persecution, prosecution, and popular mobilization in another Reform government that brings the Coalition families, especially Arroyo, Duterte, and Marcos, together. It is a shared perception of threat, as Dan Slater argued, that elites may be driven to form an authoritarian Leviathan. What a Robredo government and the movement it inspired (as well as the past Aquino governments) represented to them is what Karl Polanyi would characterize as “the impress of an acute danger… [which will endure] as long as its ultimate cause is not removed.” The Marcos-Duterte Leviathan, then, is built not merely to withstand the persistent challenges of the day but to facilitate the difficult work of creating more enduring and durable defenses against all hopes of Change. There is no need for the Old World to die if the people do not struggle for a New Order to be born.

Unlike past elections, who won the 2022 elections were decided not on election day. Most of the voters already made up their minds even before the start of the campaign period. It was a done deal then; less voters were even willing to go through the long rituals of the election season.

In the end, Filipinos were tempted to just trust the devil they know than go through six years of uncertainty. The permanent pandemic crisis, and all its resulting anxieties, understandably hardened people’s desire for certainty. A family sociologist once told me that sometimes people endure even the most toxic of relationships because familiarity can be comforting and change can be unsettling. When you are chained to the wall inside a cave all your life, the light outside could be blinding as it is illuminating. The second you are freed, there is a good chance you’d run like hell back to the cave.

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