Bongbong’s template for the presidency: FM

by Tony Lopez

Former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos Jr. garnered an astonishing 31.8 million votes or 59% of 54 million votes cast for president on May 9, 2022, to score the largest landslide victory in Philippine history to bring back the Marcoses to power, 36 years after their ouster by a People Power revolt in 1986.  

As the 17th president of the archipelago of 7,300 islands and 110 million, Bongbong Marcos is expected to set a new style of governance and reform in Asia’s oldest democracy.

The incoming leader faces formidable problems.  Seven easily come to mind: 1) massive joblessness, 2) food shortages, 3) surging prices of food, energy and major commodities; 4) bloated debts, at P12.6 trillion; 5) COVID resurgence; 6) the need to attract large investments to pump-prime the economy; and 7) the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war. “How to handle the economy is key to success,” Marcos admitted in a CNN interview. “It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs, and prices, prices, prices.”

Marcos’s 32 million votes are more than twice the nearly 15 million votes eked out by his distant rival, Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo who got a measly 28% in the Philippines’ largest and most important election, 126 years  since it became a republic on June 12, 1896.

Largest ever margin

The margin of victory of Marcos, 64, is the largest ever, both in percentage terms, by 31%, and in number of votes, by 16.8 million.  This gives the only son and namesake of the late strongman Ferdinand Edralin Marcos the largest political capital ever by any Philippine president.

It is also the first time a winner has won a clear majority of more than 50% of the vote after the 1987 Constitution allowed as many candidates to run for president.  From 1935 to 1986, only two major parties contested the presidency, ensuring majority vote for the winner.

With his unprecedented mandate, the question has arisen: Will Bongbong Marcos become a strongman just as his father in the last 14 years of his 20-year presidency, from Dec. 30, 1965 to Feb. 25, 1986?

Bongbong’s  election as president validates Marcos’s hero’s burial in 2016.  To millions of Filipinos, Marcos Sr. was the best president the country ever had.  If so, the 17th president will be walking under the huge shadows of the 10th.

The elder Marcos was perhaps the most charismatic of all Philippine presidents when democrats were still fashionable in elections and statecraft.

Lean of body and sharp in memory, he embodied the best in the modern Philippine leader and was the nearest epitome of a great president.

“The only negative thing about him is the alleged amassing of wealth, but that still has to be proven,” said Harvard-trained lawyer Estelito Mendoza in my interview years back.  Titong Mendoza served Marcos as solicitor-general. Marcos prime minister Cesar Virata has been more judicious: “His presidency before 1982 should be given high marks. After that, everything fell apart.” 

Marcos’s last act in 1986

The lingering memory of many Filipinos about Marcos was that of the strongman trying to boost the morale of his supporters at the balcony of Malacañang, the presidential palace in the morning of  Feb. 25, 1986.

 In a hoarse but booming voice, Marcos tried to begin another term as a duly elected president of the Philippines, for the fourth time that fateful morning Tuesday of Feb. 25, 1986. At the ground, just below the balcony were cheering but anxious supporters.

Right after his strained speech, he was wheeled into the palace emergency room, clearly ailing. By past 9 p.m. of Feb. 25, 1986, US helicopters descended on the palace ground.  Marcos and his family were to be flown to his Ilocos Norte home province, probably for him to take his last stand and exercise presidential powers 489 kms north of Malacañang.

Exiled to Hawaii

The family and a coterie of subalterns were instead flown by jet to a United States air base in Hawaii, there to live in forced exile, and ending a 20-year rule, the longest presidency in Philippine history. 

Marcos died on Sept. 29, 1989, a sad and lonely man, in Hawaii.  He was 72.  His body was not allowed to be returned and buried in the Philippines until Sept. 7, 1993.  The Philippines’ most bemedaled soldier, Marcos was not allowed a hero’s burial until Rodrigo Duterte became president. On Nov. 18, 2016, a Friday, the strongman was given a hero’s last rite, at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, south of Manila.

For years, Marcos’s face was bloated from steroids injected following two successive kidney transplants in August 1983. The first one, with the kidney donated by only son Ferdinand Jr., failed. So a second transplant had to be executed, immediately within 48 hours. It succeeded, enabling Marcos to live until the snap presidential election of Feb. 7, 1986. He won the snap election but a four-day Feb. 22-25, 1986 power ousted him from Malacañang.

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For two decades, Marcos, a bar topnotcher and a brilliant lawyer, energized the Philippines. “This nation can be great again,” he declared in his sonorous baritone when he became, at 48, his country’s youngest president in 1965. “He gave us a sense of nationhood and national identity,” said academic Alex Magno, who is hardly a Marcos fan. “The Filipino became more important than the Ilocano or Cebuano.”

Marcos drove the point home with a bold foreign policy. He established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1975 and Moscow in 1976, long before the U.S. and others in ASEAN did. He refused to extend the Laurel-Langley Agreement that granted American investors many of the same rights in the Philippines as Filipinos themselves. And it was Marcos who cut the U.S. lease on military bases in his country from 99 to 25 years and began collecting rent.  In his first four years as president, Marcos built more roads and installed more power lines than all his predecessors combined. He brought his country self-sufficiency in rice, the Filipino family’s staple food, which accounts for 15% of the consumer price index. He formulated a national ideology that stressed pride in the country’s heritage

Greatest achievement as president

His greatest accomplishment, he told me in a lengthy interview while he was in exile in Hawaii in 1987, was “the conversion of a mendicant, indolent, uninspired and resigned people and country into a vibrant society.”

Marcos did call elections — but carefully controlled them. He was a master political manipulator, always two steps ahead of his challengers. He was confident enough to allow the existence of a vocal opposition, who constantly criticized him in foreign media that circulated freely.But the man who promised greatness also brought misery. Re-elected in 1969, Marcos was due to step down in 1973 because the Constitution allowed only two terms. He got around that by imposing martial rule in 1972, locking up newspapers and politicians alike. Yet he also broke up more than 200 private armies and produced annual economic growth of 6%-7% in the late 1970s. 

Enrile on Marcos

But with power so concentrated, the rot inevitably set in. His former defense secretary, Juan Ponce Enrile, once held him accountable for corruption, imprudent foreign borrowing, doling out business franchises to cronies and relatives — and the 1983 assassination of archrival Benigno Aquino. President Fidel Ramos, a distant Marcos cousin who served as his acting armed forces chief, said he misused the military to perpetuate his rule. 

Eventually, it was the Americans who undid Marcos. In 1985 a California newspaper published a detailed story outlining his alleged “hidden wealth.” That undercut support for him and his free-spending wife Imelda at a critical time. Washington began to fear for its military bases as the situation in Manila grew darker. Marcos later said that his greatest mistake was to bend to intense U.S. pressure and call the “snap” presidential election of early 1986.

Among the many ironies is that he might just have won it if his people had left it alone. Results were neck and neck, but the returns from Ilocos were so tainted that the count was never finished.

A brilliant life

Airlifted into exile, Marcos died a bitter man in 1989. “He led one of the most brilliant lives recorded in the annals of this nation or any nation,” said the late Sen. Blas Ople, once a Marcos labor minister. “That it ended in exile and disgrace will make it one of the most poignant stories told.” Added the late Ramon Mitra, a staunch Marcos opponent, a former speaker and presidential candidate himself: “He was a remarkable man whose deeds and misdeeds will mark our lives.”

If Bongbong Marcos does well in office, history’s judgment of Ferdinand Marcos may be kinder still.