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The Manila Times : Restoration politics

News & Interviews
5 November 2021

By Stephen CuUnjieng | The Manila Times

MANY of my generation thought when the Marcoses fled in 1986 they were done as a political force. Yet, as the classic blues song goes, "Sent for you yesterday, yet here you come today." Why is Bongbong Marcos leading in the polls? As I observe their comeback, I have thought a lot about it. This is an ongoing process that has been constant not just since the family returned to the Philippines after President Marcos' death, but probably from when they got over their jet lag upon arrival in exile in Hawaii. I give them credit for their focus and relentlessness at restoring themselves. They could have stayed in exile and not just the Marcos family, but nearly all the cronies came back or never left and contested elections from the start. A few stayed away permanently, but most came back and even more amazing to me, successfully rehabilitated themselves. Surprised about the Marcoses' viability? Wouldn't the careers of not just of Senator Enrile but scores of Marcos cabinet officials and so on since the 1990s presaged that? Even the slow upward shift in the electoral fortunes of the Marcos family from 1992 to today is evident. While most of the Yellow and anti-Marcos crowd stayed that way, what was even more surprising to me is how some former detainees and Marcos' critics in their senior age have now become not just apologists for the Marcoses but major cheerleaders.

Why is this possible restoration of the most powerful and famous but also most controversial and reviled political name in Philippine history happening? They may be back at Malacañan Palace 36 years after they left. Note I am not using dynastic as that is a given in Philippine politics. Political power in the Philippines is so lucrative and attractive. From barangay to national level, it is a core competence and main occupation of families and clans through generations. Dynasties exist in other countries too, but I have not seen it to the extent it holds sway here. For most political families, if the influence is not sustained, it is usually not for lack of trying.

Why it succeeds

l leave analysis of tactics of this to others more qualified and limit myself to why restorations become possible. For me, restoration is bringing back to prominence or power something lost of a dictator or strongman's tarnished name, family, party or movement. The Marcoses are the supreme example of this in Philippine politics. I looked at other countries where the dominant person, family or movement had a restoration or at least had a very good shot at it and where there wasn't any. Let us start with where there was none. Nazis and Fascists are a fringe group in Germany and Italy. Not to belittle their disruptiveness and danger, but they are nowhere near being in power or even being kingmakers or influential. Same with the Kuomintang in China. They may still be a force in Taiwan but not on the mainland. Same with Sukarno in Indonesia. Suharto's followers are more of a force than Sukarno's. It does not describe Singapore as the PAP has been uninterrupted in winning elections. Nor Malaysia where except for a recent two-year gap, UMNO has been in sole or joint control.

Where have restorations happened? Russia, where ex-KGB Putin has been in control for over a decade post- Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Argentina where Peron, who was sent packing, came back to power after decades. While he is long gone, his party remains a major player. Peru, where former president Alberto Fujimori, while still in jail, re-emerged as a force. His daughter nearly won the presidency in the last election.

For me, what is the most important reason in all these countries and in the Philippines that a restoration is possible or happened? Disappointment or worse with what followed. Last March, I wrote how EDSA was worthwhile but wasted. When we became independent in 1946 our exports were sugar, copra and copper concentrate and we had a population of below 20 million (I found the 1948 census which put our population at 19 million). Seventy-five years after that, what is our legacy? The only thing that grew steadily and uninterrupted is our population, which is now about 110 million. We no longer are a major exporter of sugar. Copra and copper exports are a shadow of what they were. We also failed to integrate upwards in those industries which our neighbors did, like Thailand (sugar), Indonesia (copper, palm oil) and Malaysia (palm oil and rubber). We were already falling behind before martial law was declared. What did Cory and her team do? Restore that failing feudal pseudo-democracy rather than come up with a better way besides that or dictatorship.

Now what is our largest export 35 years after EDSA? Ourselves. Fifty years ago, the elite used to have Chinese amahs. Now even on the mainland, the Chinese middle class and higher have Filipino amahs and drivers. No one cares about us, just for our caregivers. I remember how sad I was about Tiananmen in 1989. Now you tell me if there is any question of how abysmal the last 30 years have been for the Philippines and by contrast how successful it has been for China. In my view, except for the six years of the Ramos administration, it has been minor or major disappointment for the Philippines since EDSA.

Demographic challenge

Here is the corollary. Restorations failed or were not even considered when what succeeded that regime was a success. Think of Germany and China, or even Italy and Indonesia. Some have been great successes, some more modest, but life improved for the general populace on a sustained basis. Where it did not improve, the political environment slowly ripened for a restoration or attempted one.

Opponents of the restoration also face a demographic challenge. Lacking a positive reason for their case, they rely on stressing the often fully justified negatives of the prior. I am not a fan of martial law and its record for both governance and the economy. Yet it does not mean I should deny that what followed post-EDSA was overall a different disappointment and failure. In my view it was not as bad and not equivalent to the Marcos era, especially that era's last five years. But for most Filipinos, our post-EDSA life is nothing to celebrate.

This leads to the demographic challenge. As more time passes, those with a direct memory of the pre-1986 era become a smaller and smaller minority with each election. I was 13 when martial law was declared and 26 during EDSA. I am now 62. Anyone under 50 was at best a teenager during EDSA or was an infant or yet to be born when martial law was declared. With no direct memory to contrast their disappointment with the post-EDSA life they grew up in, many are ripe for revisionism and that sides' narrative.

This is my take on the biggest reason for the restoration possibility. It starts with disappointment or worse with what followed. Then with time, revisionism and so on begins to fall on an increasingly receptive audience with no point of direct comparison.

Fatigue and infighting

What is usually the final denouement that enables the restoration? Fatigue and infighting among the ruling party or coalition that replaced the group seeking a restoration. Look at every Philippine presidential election from 1992. Never were both dominant camps united. At best one side was, as was the case with Estrada and PNoy. In every presidential election, whoever was united or the least divided won. That side was usually the most focused and disciplined as well. Think of how everyone in their camp united behind Estrada in 1998 while the Ramos and Aquino coalition had de Venecia, de Villa and Osmeña running and dividing their vote. Let us not forget that thanks to a no run-off system, every president post-EDSA has been elected with a minority of all votes cast. If the Cojuangco and Imelda Marcos votes in 1992 were combined, they would have had more votes than Ramos. Estrada, Arroyo, Aquino 3rd and Duterte did not win 50 percent either. Now for the upcoming election, do you think the Duterte and Marcos camps will be unified? For all their differences, are they insulting and backbiting each other? Compare that with the other side. Who does that side spend most of their time criticizing? The other side or did they form a squabbling and circular firing squad of pettiness? Even worse, read the small-minded, inane and ignorant posts of their Pavlovian fanatics? See who they are slamming with the most vehemence and frequency and over trivial points like posture.

Past results will tell you where the election is headed if these trends continue. If the divided side stays that way and the other side manages to unite, what will happen is clear. Also factor in which side is more enthusiastic.

There is still time for all this to play out but history points to how it will end if what is happening continues. One of the main flaws of the Yellow side in the last presidential election was the assumption that their pillorying of Binay and Poe would increase the vote of Roxas. Binay and Poe may have lost support, but their voters mostly went to Duterte instead. Are they hurling boomerangs and making the same mistake again? Is what happened with Roxas going to repeat itself? Both Roxas and Robredo were well known to the public but not polling well. Their opponents for that pool of votes were more popular but their support was not firm. By bringing them down in 2016, they made the flawed assumption that their votes would go to their candidate. What happened was the public had made up its mind about Roxas. They were open on who to vote for, but not for him. Even the subsequent Senate election confirmed that. Is this time different or are we going to see a reprise with Robredo?

That reminds me of an apt quote used by many from Somerset Maughan to Gore Vidal and David Merrick — "It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail." I would paraphrase that to some succeed because the other side fails.