The two decades that Ferdinand Marcos Sr. ruled the Philippines unfolded in dramatic fashion, bookended by his propaganda-fueled rise to power in the 1960s and a dark-of-night escape from the country in the 1980s after a nonviolent uprising toppled his authority.
If the Marcos name was once reviled among many Filipinos who associated it with cronyism, rights abuses, excess wealth and shoes — Marcos’ wife, Imelda, owned an infamous footwear collection — the political dynasty appears to have reclaimed the highest office in the Southeast Asian nation, a longtime U.S. ally.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the second child of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, is the presumptive winner of the Philippine presidential election, with U.S. President Joe Biden calling to congratulate him on Thursday. He defeated nine other opponents by a wide margin in an election that experts say was tainted by rampant social media misinformation.
Unofficial results from Monday’s election show Marcos Jr., 64, capturing more than 31 million votes, double that of his closest rival, current Vice President Leni Robredo, with other candidates trailing far behind, including retired boxing champ Manny Pacquiao.
“To the world: Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions,” Marcos Jr. said upon declaring victory, according to a statement from his spokesman.
But historians say any analysis of the Philippines’ future with a Marcos scion at the helm would ring hollow without a critical eye toward the past.
What is Ferdinand Marcos’ legacy?
Marcos Jr. was 8 years old when his father was elected president in 1965.
The elder Marcos, a lawyer, leveraged his military service during World War II to ascend the country’s political ranks. While running for office, he relished in his stories as a self-proclaimed war hero, although U.S. government files would later discredit the narrative that he led a guerrilla force against the Japanese.
Still, Marcos gained favor among Filipinos with his populist agenda. Ronald Reagan, as California governor, struck an alliance with Marcos that stretched into his own presidency. He and first lady Nancy Reagan counted Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos as friends, upholding the Philippines as a rare democracy in Southeast Asia.
But from 1972 to 1981, Marcos also controlled the Philippines through martial law, which he declared was necessary in order to combat perceived threats to the country from communists and Muslim separatists. During that time, dissidents and political opponents were jailed and described being tortured and sexually abused by soldiers.
Then in 1983, the assassination of Marcos’ chief political rival, Benigno Aquino Jr., led the U.S. to distance itself from the Marcos regime. (Pro-Marcos military personnel would later be convicted in Aquino’s death.)
Three years later, Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, challenged Marcos for president in an election marred by fraud. When Marcos was declared the winner, demonstrators filled the streets of the capital, Manila, for days in what is known as the People Power Revolution. Military officers defected in support of Aquino, who was sworn in on Feb. 25, 1986. That night, at Reagan’s urging, Marcos conceded to Aquino and fled with his family to Hawaii.
What happened to the Marcos family after he was deposed?
The end of the Marcos era was only the beginning of the family’s troubles.
When the Marcoses and their entourage absconded from the Philippines, it was with a stunning supply of wealth, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1986: $7.7 million in cash and $4 million in gems and jewelry, including a gold crown and three diamond-studded tiaras.
But that was only a sliver of what they had amassed, and in the following decades, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos would be hit with criminal and civil fraud charges filed in the United States and accusations by the Philippine government that the couple plundered billions of dollars from their home country, stashed millions in Swiss and Hong Kong bank accounts, and tried to profit from clandestine investments in New York real estate.
Imelda Marcos and Marcos Jr. still face a $353 million contempt judgment in the U.S. in a class-action over the elder Marcos’ rights abuses, and members of the Marcos family are also defendants in at least 40 lawsuits related to their wealth, Reuters reported this month. They have long maintained their innocence.
Ferdinand Marcos died in Honolulu in 1989 at age 72. Two years later, Imelda Marcos was allowed to return to the Philippines, where she ran for president twice unsuccessfully before winning a seat in the country’s Congress four times, most recently in 2016.
This week, wearing all red and clutching a rosary, the 92-year-old Marcos matriarch cast a vote for her son in the presidential election.
How did Marcos Jr. become the presidential front-runner?
Marcos Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps by holding a variety of public offices, including governor and congressman.
His presidential hopes benefited from name recognition and familial and regional loyalties as well as a deep-pocketed campaign that propagated a form of “revisionist history,” said Lily Ann Villaraza, chair of the Philippine studies department at City College of San Francisco.
Social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok, where many Filipinos consume their information, were flooded with content casting martial law and life under the elder Marcos as a “golden age.”
“This directly informed many people’s understanding of martial law under his father — presenting that history in a positive light,” Villaraza said. “More than half of the country’s population was born after 1986, and thus have no personal memory of martial law or the catalysts for the Marcoses’ downfall. The political is personal in the Philippines and vice versa; no felt connection to that time period, coupled with the lack of learning about martial law in school curriculum, created a chasm waiting to be filled with the loudest perspectives.”
Marcos also got a boost from his alliance with Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, who won the vice presidential election by a landslide after opting not to run for president herself.
What did Marcos Jr. run on?
His campaign portrayed him as a champion of the poor — about one-fifth of Filipinos live in extreme poverty. His pledge of better roads, more accessible internet, lower utility and food costs, and a desire to unite the Philippines seemed to sway voters, Villaraza said.
The glint of celebrity also didn’t hurt. “If you mention ‘Marcos’ anywhere in the world, for better or for worse, there is at least a vague knowledge — perhaps about the shoes,” Villaraza said. “And the desire for proximity to that celebrity is real.”
But there was also little for people to pick apart during the campaign, said Vicente Rafael, author of “The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte” and a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Marcos Jr., along with Duterte-Carpio, refused to grant interviews to international media or participate in debates.
They “wrapped themselves up in this very strange bubble where only their supporters would hear what they had to say, which was nothing,” Rafael said. “It was very vacuous references to unifying the country.”
What does this mean for U.S.-Philippine relations?
The bond between Washington and Manila has been strained over accusations of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses under President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, though former President Donald Trump maintained the relationship was still “great.”
With Marcos Jr. having studied internationally — he attended programs at Oxford University in England and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, but did not finish either, according to Reuters — he is likely to take a softer stance with the U.S. and other Western allies, Rafael said.
But a major question remains whether Marcos Jr. will continue many of the policies under Duterte, who is a close ally, and potentially appease Chinese leader Xi Jinping amid the two countries’ territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Despite the billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese investments in the Philippines, the country still leans on the U.S. as its prime backer, with the U.S. military a major source of weapons and training.
Marcos is “going to have to tread very carefully insofar as the connections with the United States,” Rafael said.
Xi and Biden were among the first world leaders to congratulate Marcos Jr. on his apparent election win, suggesting the two rivals view the Philippines as a pivotal linchpin in the strategically important Indo-Pacific region.
Whatever the future holds, this much is evident, Rafael said: Marcos Jr. was able to apply his father’s “propaganda toolkit” to scale the political heights and orchestrate a comeback for his family that 36 years ago would have seemed inconceivable.
“If you look at how he crafted his campaign,” Rafael said, “they were very good at playing the long game.”