The imminent victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the country’s late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in the Philippine presidential election is part of a bigger picture of political development in Southeast Asia, offering the world with two ironies.
The first irony is the sign that majority of people in this part of the world seem to have been fed up with democracy, and lost faith in its promises, despite the fact that they have sacrificed lives, blood and tears to achieve it years ago. As the gap between the rich 1 percent and the poor 99 percent is ballooning, the people seem start to believe that democracy is all talks without substance. Where is the prosperity and good life it promises?
The second irony is that they turn to figures they consider strong and tough as their leaders, even if they risk end up having authoritarian type of leadership they have worked hard to get rid of in the first place, in an attempt to bring back ‘good old days” when everything was easy and cheap.
In Malaysia, the appointment of Sabri Yaakob as the country’s prime minister last year brought back to power the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was removed in 2018 elections over a multibillion-dollar corruption against then prime minister Najib Razak
The graft-tainted UMNO’s comeback was possible because of the incapability of the 2018 winners to unite factions and to govern, just like what happens in the Philippines. Successions of leaders after Marcos failed to meet people’s expectation, inviting romanticism and strongmen to govern.
In Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has acted more like Soeharto in silencing critics and using false narrative to boost its popularity. His senior minister, Luhut Panjaitan, for instance, told the public that his “big data” showed that 110 million people wanted Jokowi to be president for the third period despite the constitution clearly limits any president to be just two terms. He can never proves this claim even after thousands of protesting students pressed him to do so. And like most of other authoritarians, Jokowi sells himself as developer of infrastructure, but using foreign debts to realise his projects. Indonesia’s foreign debts are more than double since he took office in 2014.
Jokowi is now on a trip to the United States, and possibly will meet big business players, like Elon Musk, to ask them to invest in Indonesia. But if Elon Musk is really the champion of freedom of expression, like his claim when unveiling plan to take over Twitter, then he and Jokowi has nothing in common.
In Thailand, after doing a coup against democratically elected prime minister in 2014, the military has been refusing to step down and hold election, with international community turning a blind eye on this development all these years, while the military in Myanmar strengthens its grip after doing a coup and putting Aung San Su Kyi in house arrest. In Cambodia, Hun Sen, the region’s longest serving leader, has also tighten his grip on the country, and look to stay in power for life.
In the Philippines, Marcos, popularly known as “Bongbong”, not only has won the presidency, he has dominated his competitors. He win by a majority, or surpassing 27.5 million, or 50 percent of total votes, the first time it is done since a 1986 revolution that toppled his late father’s two-decade dictatorship.
The rise of younger Marcos to power is only a product of incapability of successions of corrupt Philippine leaders since the fall of older Marcos in 1986. The Filipinos have seen it all. From Corazon Aquino to Fidel Ramos to Joseph Estrada to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, e ach of them has failed to meet people’s expectation of better life. Each of these presidents was either being forced to leave office because of corruption, or they were left by the voters because of their incapability, giving way to strongman ad authoritarian-like leaders, such as Rodrigo Duterte to rule at the expense of freedom, human rights and democracy.
Benigno Aquino was actually trying to do the right thing, and dared to challenge corrupt dynastic system. But most Filipinos were impatient, and instead handed over the power to Duterte.
Nobody can say with straight face that previous leaders were better than Duterte because they were not. They are just the same, if not worse. So, if there is to be blamed for romanticism and rise of the strongmen, it is these corrupt and incapable leaders and elites.
During Duterte’s rule, extra-judicial killings, repression, and other human rights violations become the norm, and people seem to ignore it altogether, looking at the fact that Duterte is still hugely popular near the end of his term. Like most of authoritarian rulers, such as Marcos, Duterte relied on big spending and deficit, financed by foreign debts to grow the economy and build big infrastructure.
For short run, this kind of policy can spur the economy by 6 to 7 percent of growth, and provide people with jobs. But this kind of narrow-minded policies are sacrificing the nation’s future. Just look what the late Marcos and Soeharto have done to the Philippines and Indonesia respectively after they left office.
Both countries were plunged to the abyss, and never recovered decades after these strongmen left.
The rise of Duterte and then Marcos are a testament of how most people are fed up with slogans of democracy without tangible benefits they can feel, and how they are longing for “the good old days” of economic boom, which they think can only be achieved by strongmen, like Duterte or Marcos.
While this is delusional, people just want something good to believe in. In this case, the story of how Marcos can lift the Philippine economy to its “golden era” is attractive enough to believe in. Who knows? Maybe his son could repeat it, right? Exactly.
There should be no doubt that Marcos family has stolen billions of dollars of state wealth during their rule, and they are one of Asia’s most notorious kleptocracies, comparable to Indonesia’s Soeharto family.
Marcos, who pairs with Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, who also sweeps the vice presidential election, has made it clear that he will continue Duterte’s policies and his father’s strongman-type of leadership.
If this is to be the case, the Philippines are like waiting for massive disaster to happen.