Enemy at the gates 

Remember the saying “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”? 

That must be us. Here we are, 36 years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship, still debating whether his presidency was good or bad. What? We booted him out because he was good?  

This is the second time the Marcos legacy is a major issue in our elections.  

The first time was in the runup to the May 11, 1987 elections in which Filipinos voted for members of a bicameral Congress that Marcos abolished when he proclaimed martial law 15 years earlier. That was in September 1972, less than a year short of the end of his second and constitutionally mandated last term as president. 

As I noted in an Associated Press dispatch in April 1987, candidates who supported then President Corazon Aquino asked voters to vote for them because they had fought Marcos throughout his 21-year rule.  

Such was the odium then for man and his dictatorship, which came to an end in the February 1986 People Power uprising that swept Cory Aquino to power. Even the rightwing opposition Grand Alliance for Democracy (GAD) admitted that potential candidates were excluded from its lineup because of their links to Marcos.  

Newspapers, radio and television, even private personal conversations in coffee shops were filled with analyses of candidates’ links to Marcos. 

Journalist Jullie Yap Daza, host of a weekly television talk show, complained in an interview that no matter how hard she tried to steer the conversation to issues such as the Muslim and communist insurgencies, economic stagnation and social justice, the candidates “just kept coming back to Marcos!” 

And why Not? “We just cannot forget 20 years of plunder, and we must seriously guard our democracy so that we will not have another Marcos,” Mrs. Aquino said at a campaign rally.   

What has changed? 

For one, another Marcos is at the gates – the deceased ousted dictator’s only son and namesake, Ferdinand Jr., 64, better known as Bongbong.  

The major surveys have him as the frontrunner in the 2022 presidential race, supposedly with a voter preference of 60 percent. Vice President Leni Robredo, who defeated Marcos Jr. for the vice presidency in the 2016 general elections, is second with 16 percent, followed by boxing icon Manny Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso with 8 percent each, Sen. Panfilo Lacson with 4 percent and labor leader Leody de Guzman with 0.02 percent. 

The pattern of the surveys has been consistent for the past few months. They are a puzzle to many and a cause of concern for Filipinos who have not forgotten the Marcos dictatorship, especially the plunder that bankrupted the country, the human rights abuses that left thousands dead or missing, the torture of more than 30,000 people, and the curtailment of civil liberties, including the imprisonment of more than 70,000 people.  

Why would Bongbong lead other candidates by so much in the pre-election surveys when his record as a public servant is unsullied by any accomplishment? People in Ilocos Norte complain he was an absentee governor who never even learned to speak Ilocano. In Congress, he was often absent, if not late.   

Moreover, he shuns public debates and interviews on grounds that journalists are biased against the Marcoses. At rallies, he says he offers “unity” but gives no specifics. It is his spokesman, described by the press as “the Marcos camp,” who comes to his defense whenever he is criticized. So, what is the basis of his seeming popularity among the electorate? 

Despite their denials, the Marcoses are widely suspected of spending millions on propaganda to deodorize the Marcos brand, especially since the 2016 elections. 

“The Marcoses, their loyalists, and other allies have been producing and reproducing propaganda all these years, with the intended effect of conferring a patina of well-researched scholarship to Marcos,” said Miguel Paolo P. Reyes, one of two University of the Philippines researchers who conducted a recent study on the Marcos propaganda machine. 

The study, co-authored by Joel Ariate Jr., concluded that the flood of disinformation favoring Marcos “saturates the audience with all sorts of information up to a point that the propaganda effort appears to be without an author.” 

“They let their sanctioned book(s) and disinformation mingle with often more crude falsities online which lets them keep and grow their loyal base,” Reyes said. 

Two years ago, a former executive of Cambridge Analytica claimed it had been approached by Bongbong Marcos to rebrand his family’s image in social media. 

Cambridge Analytica was a London-based company that catered to businesses and political parties that sought to “change audience behaviour.” The company closed down in 2018 amid a scandal involving its use of data belonging to millions of Facebook subscribers. It is known to have worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was widely believed to have aided President Rodrigo Duterte’s election. 

Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica business development director, told Rappler in an interview that her company had discussed Bongbong Marcos’ attempt to revise history.  

“So we had a request straight from Bongbong Marcos to do a family rebranding. This was brought in through internal staff in Cambridge Analytica and was debated,” she told Rappler. “There were some people that didn’t want to touch it and there were others, like our CEO Alexander Nix, that saw it as a massive financial opportunity and asked to write the proposal anyway.”  

According to Kaiser, the Philippines had enough user information to strategically transmit tailored political messages to a certain group of people, Rappler reported. 

“So, as you call it historical revisionism, that’s exactly what it is, but it’s done in a data-driven and scientific way. So, you undertake just enough research to figure out what people believe about a certain family, individual, politician and then you figure out what could convince them to feel otherwise. And you run tests until you actually start to see people’s opinions and attitude changing,” Kaiser said.  

She did not say if the company had actually gotten to work for the Marcoses, who deny that they ever approached the company.  

What is clear, indeed, is that social media have been flooded with propaganda purporting that Marcos’ martial law years were the Philippines’ “golden age” and that reports of abuses were the handiwork of his detractors. 

The spread of propaganda and even outright lies is typical of the Marcoses.  

Marcos claimed to be the most decorated Filipino soldier of World War II although his medals were awarded long after he had become an influential senator. Boy, how he bragged about his alleged exploits as leader of a fake guerrilla outfit he called Maharlika! He had in his employ an army of ghost writers who produced books extolling the virtues of the New Society, whose theme song, “Ang Bagong Lipunan,” Bongbong Marcos loves to play at his campaign rallies. 

I will not go into Imee’s or Bongbong’s fake degrees from the University of the Philippines and Oxford, respectively. Nor will I go into Imelda’s own grandiose claims.   

Cleve Arguelles, lecturer at the De La Salle University’s political science department, told ABS-CBN recently that such propaganda was helping Bongbong Marcos. 

“I definitely think that disinformation, for example, propaganda really plays a role in why Marcos Jr. is gaining ground among low-income voters, low-income communities,” he told ANC’s “Rundown.” “The way they use social media, they rely on free data. That means certain information won’t be accessible to them. That makes them vulnerable to disinformation campaigns, the use of fake news.”  

The investigative news site Vera Files has been analyzing disinformation in social media. It has found that Marcos Jr. benefited the most from election-related disinformation in 2021 and 2022 while Robredo, who already beat him once in an election, was the favorite target. 

The Marcoses are known to have been plotting to regain power right from the time the dictator was overthrown.  

Almost immediately after they were allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991, the Marcoses began testing the waters.  

Imelda ran for president in 1992 but finished fifth in a field of seven candidates. She ran for Congress in 1995 and won a seat representing her home province, Leyte. In 2010, she ran for representative of Ilocos Norte’s second district, replacing her son, and was re-elected in 2013 and 2016. 

Before losing to Robredo for vice president in 2016, Bongbong Marcos ran for the Senate in 1995 but lost miserably. He won a Senate seat in 2010, after serving for nine years as governor of Ilocos Norte. 

Imee, the eldest of Marcos’ children, ran for and won her father’s old congressional seat in 1998 and got re-elected two more times. She also served as Ilocos Norte’s governor for three terms starting in 2010.  

She won her Senate seat in 2019, saying it was part of preparations “to bring back the Marcoses to Malacanang Palace one day.” 

Clearly, the Marcoses believe that day has come. 

Activist Mong Palatino, a blogger and former member of the House of Representatives, blames post-Marcos administrations for paving the way for a Marcos comeback. 

“That the Marcoses were able to run for public office again reflects the failure of successive post-1986 regimes to decisively prosecute and arrest those responsible for committing atrocious human rights violations and the plundering of the nation’s wealth,” he wrote recently. “Compared to other notorious dictators of the 1970s, such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina, Marcos was never indicted with criminal charges and his heirs didn’t spend a single day in prison.” 

Indeed, the Marcoses have successfully evaded jail terms. Imelda has been convicted of seven counts of graft and sentenced to up to 77 years in prison but remains free on bail while her case is pending review by the Supreme Court. Bongbong was sentenced to six years in prison for tax evasion but the Court of Appeals, while affirming the conviction, scrapped the jail term. 

Apart from regaining control of their home provinces, the Marcoses have been able to build up their political alliances. Among Bongbong’s allies going into the May polls are the Dutertes, former Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada as well as Juan Ponce Enrile, among others. All of them have been stained by corruption charges. 

Thanks largely to the failure of the country’s public education system, many young Filipinos are unaware of the horrors of martial law. Even people who are now in their early 50’s were fed Marcos propaganda while undergoing basic education during martial law. But that is for another commentary. 

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