Those of us who still believe that we live in a democracy, just because we have an electoral system, are fooling themselves. The last national elections had just torn that thin veil to shreds. We cried not so much because Leni Robredo lost, but more as we painfully watched the crumbling of our fragile democracy.
Yes, it is a fragile democracy to begin with, even if we are the first revolution and republic in Asia. That is because we went through the dark times of the Marcos dictatorship that deformed our sense of democracy and distorted our vision of a nation. We cried in 2022 because a Marcos Jr has once again stolen the people’s mandate. 2022 was a victory of anti-democratic politics.
Marcos – the name brings back the collective memory of a dynastic family, sitting on money from world-class corruption, apportioning the economy to favor cronies, rising to power through dictatorship, and weaving great lies to perpetuate themselves in power. The Marcoses personify the worst aspects of Philippine politics. And Marcos Jr is levelling up these anti-democratic features in the 21st century.
The Marcos brand
The Marcos camp has centralized power. The Marcos-Duterte unity tandem has created a super-majority in Congress, and through cheating and harassment, has almost diminished the minority and legal opposition. Ninety-five percent of local government officials belong to the unity tandem, with many of the traditional political opposition being neutralized.
On the other hand, 13 of the 15 Supreme Court justices are Duterte-appointees, which may provide some sense of assurance of the judiciary’s loyalty to the unity tandem. Yet, Marcos Jr himself has already appointed two new associate justices in the Court of Appeals and one in the Court of Tax Appeals. He has appointed en masse 52 judges in municipal trial courts and municipal circuit trial courts in Regions 1 and 2 and the Cordillera, the imagined ‘solid north’.
Centralization of power, however, should never be equated with the consolidation of the factions of the ruling elite. On the contrary, greed for power shakes the pretend unity and political stability. The Marcoses have aligned with the most corrupt and most violent Philippine presidents of the last 36 years, which precisely will not guarantee political consolidation. In the first year alone of the Marcos Jr presidency, cracks are already evident, as self-serving political ambitions run high even before Bongbong Marcos, Sara Duterte, Martin Romualdez, and even Gloria Arroyo could show performance credentials in the high positions they are occupying.
It is also unsettling for the factions that desire to succeed the presidency that the Marcoses have unceasingly poured efforts (including people’s money) to rehabilitate their name and reputation. This includes the recent rebranding of the Philippine government to modernize the logo and taglines of Marcos Sr. Are we watching the presidential term of the next five years being turned into a campaign period for the next Marcos? An expansive and expensive systematic disinformation campaign is being employed to achieve this end.
Both Rodrigo Duterte and Bongbong Marcos have exploited the internet and social media, big data and algorithms to wield disinformation about themselves in order to win the presidency through elections. Digong – fatherly, tough love, cussing but loving, simple Mayor of utopic
Davao City. Bongbong – obedient and proud son of Marcos Sr’s ‘golden age’, cheery, affable. We know now that these narratives and images have been created and built up long before the elections, and that none of these approximates the truth.
The Duterte government then proceeded to attack mainstream media outfits and personalities, blocked the websites and social media platforms of people’s organizations and alternative media, and allowed the proliferation of government-sponsored ‘fake news’ outlets and propaganda machinery.
This is why Marcos Jr is not so eager to meet the press to address important issues and would rather create content for his Tiktok or Vlog channels. On one hand, indeed he is not much of an extemporaneous and sensible speaker, but more importantly on the other hand, what works is to sustain the myths on which his following is based.
Disinformation has also been Marcos Jr’s main approach to the stumbling economy. His economic managers have not only been fudging with numbers but have also been lying straight-faced to paint a fantastic picture. Bongbong Marcos has been quoted saying “Fake news should have no place in modern society.” He has only confirmed that indeed we live in a backward society.
Disinformation is vicious. The public mind has become porous. Sometimes we blame the public’s short attention span for not being able to discuss more relevant social issues. But sadly, disinformation has made people doubt their own thinking and what is true or false.
But the most vicious aspect of the disinformation project in the country is to discredit and discourage dissent and criticism, especially coming from Philippine social movements. In the last two decades, the narrative that has been fed to us and now to the new generation is that people power is useless and anyone espousing it is obsolete. Anyone calling for change is a communist, and a communist is a terrorist. And this narrative has fed the more vicious government-sponsored practice of red-tagging activists and concerned citizens who fight for people’s rights, wage hikes, social services, better governance, agrarian reform, sovereignty, among others. Our efforts to widen the space for civil society engagement is being thrown out the window while the state is openly attacking dissent.
Attack on dissent
Marcos Jr is benefitting from the state legal machinery of repression established by Duterte – the Anti-Terrorism Law, which the Marcos Jr government is conveniently using now to incarcerate and demobilize its critics. Seven activists have already been designated as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council under Bongbong Marcos. This only proves that the law is not really targeting terrorists.
Bongbong Marcos took over a presidency that left a bloody trail of human rights abuses – attacks on the Left that increased trumped-up charges, imprisonment, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, red-tagging, harassment, crackdown on media, and a war on drugs that claimed thousands of lives and constitutes crimes against humanity.
As president-elect, Bongbong Marcos committed to human rights accountability in front of the United Nations (UN) envoy. But upon assumption of the presidency, he did not lift a finger to change what Duterte left behind. The only active move the Marcos Jr presidency did was its justice secretary and solicitor general appealing the International Criminal Court (ICC) to discontinue its probe into Duterte’s drug war, which the ICC rejected.
In reality, Bongbong Marcos has not officially called for the end of the drug war. The University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center reports that as of June 26, there have been 336 drug-related killings by state forces since Bongbong Marcos became president.
The Marcos Jr administration has also affirmed the importance of the notorious National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) for its self-preservation. It has done so by appointing former general Eduardo Año as vice-chairman and Sara Duterte as co-vice chairman. The budget for the barangay development program, which the NTF-ELCAC is using to continue red-tagging and harassing mass leaders, activists and civil society organizations, was increased for 2023.
Bongbong may not appear to be as atrocious as Digong, but human rights violations in his first year remain horrendous. Karapatan initially reports that from July 2022 to June 2023, there have been 1.6 million victims of threat, harassment and intimidation; 77 of illegal arrest and detention; 8 victims of enforced disappearance; and 60 extrajudicial killings. What is not being reported in mainstream media and social media is that indiscriminate firing (claiming 7,712 victims) and bombing of communities (claiming 6,931 victims) are happening in the countryside, at a rate of almost twice a month. Militarization in the countryside has also resulted in 13,352 victims of forced evacuation. The country has 778 political prisoners, 49 are the recent addition under Marcos Jr.
The rule of an oligarchy
We are being governed by an oligarchy. Whatever happens with the in-fighting within elite factions, it is big business that gains. Big business manages the country’s largest political parties. Big business provides the electoral largesse. Big business gains as the winning candidate sits in power. Big business gains from the neoliberal policies, programs and laws that the incumbent president ensures to be implemented.
Under the Marcos Jr administration, this has even gone overboard, or too brazen. Bongbong Marcos has appointed big business connections in cabinet positions to occupy their obvious interests, for instance: Jaime Bautista, president of Philippine Airlines, to head the transport department; or Manuel Bonoan, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of SMC Tollways, to head the public works and highways department; or Sabin Aboitiz, president and CEO of the Aboitiz Group, to lead the Private Sector Advisory Council; or Frederick Go, president and CEO of Robinson’s Land Corporation, to be the presidential adviser on investments and economic affairs.
It is big business that the government has in mind with the recently launched Build Better More (BBM) infrastructure program with about 124 flagship projects. BBM, and its precursor Build Build Build (BBB) are not necessarily catering to public needs and welfare but to benefit the businesses of oligarchs, whether as their own infrastructure projects or as infrastructure for their businesses. Ramon Ang’s SMC is capturing contracts for expressways and rail development, while Aboitiz, Ayala and Razon are gaining immensely also from transportation, ports development as well as renewable energy projects, Bongbong Marcos’s buzzword with foreign investors. The country’s richest, the Villar family, with already two family members in the senate, is definitely increasing businesses and profits, partly by capturing 100 local water districts nationwide through joint venture agreements with the family’s Prime Water Infrastructure Corporation.
It is also big business that Marcos Jr has in mind as he signs the Maharlika Investment Fund, apart from his self-interests of course. Maharlika is cheap financing for their insatiable appetite for easy profits.
Subservience to the US
The seeming rapprochement between the United States (US) and the Philippines is simply an affirmation of Philippine subservience to the US. What is remarkable is its swiftness, that in a year three visits by US officials, two US visits by Bongbong Marcos, and a 2+2 ministerial dialogue by their respective secretaries of state or foreign affairs and defense had taken place. Bongbong Marcos had finally set foot on US soil after a long while of evading the family’s court cases, and inside the White House at that. The largest Balikatan military exercises in the country’s history also took place in between those visits.
In a year, the compulsions of both parties have been quite apparent – the US overall geopolitical and economic agenda in the Indo-Pacific on one hand and the Marcoses’ self-serving interests on the other hand.
Marcos Jr quickly provided the US with four new agreed locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which the US can practically own and use as military bases and is off-limits even to the Philippine state. These are in addition to the five agreed locations given by Duterte in 2018. Marcos Jr has also reaffirmed existing military agreements, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
What is new and also quite fast is that Bongbong Marcos signed a new military alliance and security agreement with the US, the US-PH Bilateral Security Guidelines. It dictates the Philippines to get involved in facing security threats and priorities in the region, which only the US can identify.
The Philippines is also one of four ‘forward postures’ (along with Guam, Japan and Australia), or locations of clusters of military bases which can readily serve as launch sites of US military forces. Is the US at war? The US is engaged in warmongering, provocation, building of forward postures, show of force through large-scale military exercises, and proxy wars. Its recent approach is to clinch military and security alliances and agreements with countries in the region, which Bongbong Marcos had quickly signed.
The Marcos Jr government meanwhile is using the worn-out excuse that the Philippine military and the country would benefit from it all through the modernization of the Philippine armed forces, and shamelessly saying as well, through US protection of Philippine sovereignty. The Philippine government has been saying that since 1951 under the MDT, but the armed forces have remained weak and incapable of defending the country’s territory and chronically dependent on US protection. Concerned citizens are saying that we will only be dragged into America’s war. Actually, ‘dragged’ is no longer the appropriate word here, since with the US strategy of having forward postures, the Philippines is supposed to go ahead with a military action while US forces watch from across the ocean.
The US also got what it wanted economically, that is for the Philippines to be a part of US supply chains to provide cheap labor, raw materials and infrastructure. Bongbong Marcos brags about investment pledges that he has gathered from being a ‘traveling salesman’. These are mostly for information technology, semiconductors, electric vehicles, clean energy, and renewable energy. These are what the US has to secure to rebuild its industrial strength in order to maintain global hegemony. From day one, Bongbong Marcos and his economic managers have been mouthing these buzzwords as though they have an original plan for Philippine economic development. Unfortunately, the country is just a location for US business, a cog in the US machine.
This doesn’t matter to the Marcos family, because finally Bongbong Marcos got what his family wanted, that is to be back in the global diplomatic map, albeit through the embrace of US imperialism, to clean and refurbish the Marcos name. His subservience to the US also ensures US patronage that whatever happens the Marcos family would not suffer again the fate of the Marcos dictatorship.
This also doesn’t matter to the US. The US has only been consistently opportunistic and not genuinely concerned about human rights abuses, corruption and self-serving interests of the country’s ruling elite as long as these do not hurt its militarist and economic agenda. Now that these are secured under a Marcos Jr administration, we will see more active US intervention in the region.
We have urgent and difficult tasks ahead. But in the main, we have to work hard to dismantle the repressive legal and security machinery. We have to demand accountability for human rights violations with a strong condemnation of the drug war, red-tagging, killings and other political attacks. We have to work hard for electoral reforms to expose and ban political dynasties and to strengthen the party and party-list system. We have to strengthen the state capacity and commitment to national development, emphasizing the importance of substantial and strong state intervention. It’s not easy, but true democracy has always resided in us, the people, and our long history of building democracy through a solid, broad and strong mass movement.