The return of a Marcos to power in the Philippines is a warning to the world

Last week, Adarna House – a publisher of children’s books in the Philippines – posted on social media about a discount it was offering: 20% off on a #NeverAgain book bundle. The selection includes Ito Ang Diktadura, the Tagalog translation of Equipo Plantel’s Así es la Dictadura, or This is a Dictatorship. The book was originally published in Spain when the country was transitioning from the Franco regime.

What seems like a mundane moment of online marketing was in fact a significant political act. Two days before the sale, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son and namesake of the late dictator, won the Philippines’ presidential election by a landslide. Marcos Sr was one of the dictators identified in the children’s book, alongside others such as Nicolae Ceaușescu, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. Under Marcos’s two-decade rule, thousands were killed, tortured and “disappeared”. The Philippines became a kleptocracy as the Marcos family and their cronies plundered up to US $10bn.

In 1986, the Philippines decided that time was up for the Marcoses. A peaceful mass uprising forced the family into exile in Hawaii. Democratic institutions were rebuilt, albeit slowly and imperfectly. But in 2022, the nation seems to have changed its mind. Marcos Jr was a consistent frontrunner in the presidential campaign. His victory was expected.

There are various factors that contribute to the Marcoses’ political comeback. Some argue that this started more than 30 years ago, when the Marcos family was allowed to return to the Philippines from exile. Since then, they have been normalised as part of the Philippines’ political life. Imelda Marcos ran for and lost the presidency twice but won a congressional seat in her home town. The Marcos children, Bongbong and Imee, also won seats in congress and the senate. Lifestyle magazines and talkshows glamourised the family, instead of ostracising them. A magazine called Metro put Bongbong on their anniversary issue’s cover page in 1990 next to the words, “the best and the brightest”. For Imee’s 60th birthday in 2015, she posed for the cover of the Philippine Tatler’s fashion issue wearing a gown in blood red.

This glamourising has gone into overdrive during the last 10 years. Media studies scholars tracked the sharp increase of YouTube channels that portrayed the Marcos legacy as the building of bridges, hospitals, cultural centres and windmills, which made the Philippines the envy of the world, without any mention of the alleged corruption and massive debts that this “edifice complex” incurred.

Stories about the source of the Marcos wealth have also gone viral on TikTok. According to a pro-Marcos theory, Marcos Sr, a lawyer, received payment for his legal work in gold bars – thus explaining away the source of the family’s wealth. Marcos Jr himself is active on social media – so active that he refused to take part in any debate and press conferences during the campaign. He said he preferred to talk directly to the people, often through his vlogs which showed him and his family living their best lives. TikTok influencers portrayed his son Sandro as a heart-throb worthy of a Korean drama. “Family rebranding” is how a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower described the memo from the Marcos family when they reportedly requested their services. (The Marcos family denied that these reports were accurate.)

Adarna House’s book bundle is one of the many ways publishers, historians, teachers, researchers and journalists are pushing back against the now prevailing narrative that the Marcos era was a golden age. Two days into the Marcos presidency, there have been calls to digitise and protect the historical archives that document the atrocities and plunder committed by the regime. Artists and celebrities have also pushed back on TikTok with videos that counter the revisionism.

But this will be an uphill battle. Already, the national taskforce founded to counter communist insurgency called out Adarna House for “radicalising” young children. Before the election, independent bookstores that carried literature critical of the dictatorship were vandalised with anti-communist graffiti. One of Marcos Jr’s first cabinet appointments has been to put his running mate, Sara Duterte, at the department of education. Duterte is the daughter of the incumbent president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal drug war prompted the international criminal court to approve an investigation into crimes against humanity – this was paused last year at the request of the government. Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson has said that any deaths were due to a “legitimate police exercise”. Educators wonder what kind of human rights education will be conveyed to young Filipinos in the years ahead.

Social media will also be a challenging field for dissent, for opposition voices have been constantly harassed on various platforms by an army of trolls. The experience of Marcos Jr’s main opponent, vice-president Leni Robredo, is exemplary. Throughout her campaign, TikTok was flooded with spliced videos that portrayed her as dumb and incoherent. These attacks are consequential, for they send a signal to all critics that they too could go viral for the wrong reasons.

The return of the Marcoses is a warning to the world. Their return to the political centre stage did not happen overnight. It unfolded over decades as the result of cultural battles that many did not even know were happening.

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