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An unstable triumph: the Philippines after the election

Interview with Walden Bello

Tempest’s Ashley Smith interviews Walden Bello in this follow-up interview after the national elections in the Philippines on May 9, which saw the consolidation of power under the right-wing populist and authoritarian Marcos/Duterte ticket.

Tempest’s Ashley Smith interviews Walden Bello in this follow-up interview after the national elections in the Philippines on May 9, which saw the consolidation of power under the right-wing populist and authoritarian Marcos/Duterte ticket.

Walden Bello teaches sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and is co-chair of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South. He is the author or co-author of more than two dozen books, including Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right and Paper Dragons: China and the Next Crash.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and his vice-presidential running mate, Sara Duterte, won the recent national election in a landslide. Marcos, the son of the country’s notorious dictator who was ousted by a popular revolt in 1986, won 31 million votes, trouncing his liberal rival, outgoing vice-president Leni Robredo, with only 14 million.

Bello ran for vice-president of the Philippines on a ticket with presidential candidate Leodegario “Ka Leody” Quitain de Guzman for the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM, the Party of the Laboring Masses). They offered a democratic socialist alternative to both the right and the failed neoliberal establishment. Here Bello speaks about the election results and the trajectory of the Philippines.

Ashley Smith: What’s your assessment of the results of the elections? What does it mean about society and politics in the Philippines today?

Walden Bello: I think there are two sides to the results. One is, of course, that it’s quite depressing that the son of a dictator who was really hated got about 58 percent of the vote. He won by a landslide.

In terms of social economic classes, he won across the board, except among people 65 years and above. He got a large-scale vote from the working masses, most of whom are quite young and didn’t live through the horrible years under his father’s dictatorship.

The other side is that our campaign had a very positive reception. Our ticket, headed by Ka Leody, presented a democratic socialist alternative. While our results were not that great, with him coming in eighth out of a list of ten presidential candidates, we were able to connect with large numbers of people. Our program resonated with them, and some voted for us.

Many told us quite frankly, you know, that if there wasn’t a threat of Marcos Jr. coming to power, they would have voted for us. But with Marcos as a real threat, most of those who were sympathetic with our message voted for Leni Robredo as the lesser evil.

We had no illusions that we would win, but the response to our democratic socialist agenda was quite gratifying and outstripped our initial expectations. That’s why I say there are two sides to this. The popular reception of our message of democratic socialism is the silver lining in a terrible election that brought Marcos to power.

AS: Your campaign made quite a stir and your slogans captured a great deal of attention. Could you flesh out the dynamics and your experience of the campaign?

WB: The overriding issue in the campaign was the threat of Marcos Jr. coming to power. So, we came out as the strongest opposition to him. I raised the slogan “Fuck You, Marcos,” and repeated that in most of my speeches.

That slogan connected with the people most committed to making sure Marcos wouldn’t win. We were verbalizing something that other candidates were unwilling to say and that people were reluctant to openly declare. We popularized saying “Fuck You, Marcos,” so that now it’s part of normal, civilized conversation.

But as I said, we were trapped in a lesser evil election where the main dynamic was for people to vote for Robredo to stop Marcos. At the same time, her campaign was never going to win. It didn’t resonate with people.

Robredo ran on a bland platform of good governance. She didn’t offer anything new and took weak positions on everything except on human rights and corruption. She didn’t take a position on structural issues like wages, housing, and poverty—the key socioeconomic problems that plague people’s lives.

She was not even willing to take a strong position on the minimum wage. By contrast, we demanded that it be raised to 750 pesos a day. She steered clear of making such demands because she was afraid of alienating her more conservative backers, which included big capitalists.

We ran on a program with a strong bite, including raising the minimum wage and taxing the rich. We targeted the super rich as the root of our problems in the Philippines. Robredo ran a center right campaign and, as a result, managed to get only 24 percent of the vote—a crushing defeat for the outgoing vice-president.

This points to the fact that the whole election was a referendum on the liberal democratic system the Philippines has had since 1986, when Marcos Sr. was driven out of the country. For the last thirty-six years, administration after administration ran a formal democracy that did not address working people’s grievances—poverty, inequality, the cost of housing, and low wages.

Instead, they implemented neoliberal measures that were pushed by the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, and behind them all the United States. As a result, most people in the Philippines experienced a long period of impoverishment. Their lives have gotten much harder, and no reforms have been passed to improve their conditions. So, a huge reservoir of resentment has built up against the existing order.

In many ways, then, the vote for Marcos was a protest vote, a vote against the neoliberal establishment that has run the country for the last few decades. This dynamic of protest voting started in 2016 when people voted for Rodrigo Duterte, who really galvanized the vote of the poor. This is now the second phase of voting against liberal democrats for failing to deliver anything to improve people’s lives.

We must remember that most people who voted for Marcos Jr. were born after 1986, so they had no direct experience of his father’s dictatorship. All they have experienced is the liberal democrat’s failure to deliver any reforms in their interests.

That’s why Marcos was able to win, not just because he ran a massive internet campaign of disinformation portraying his father’s nightmarish dictatorship as a golden age. Of course, that propaganda had an impact. But you have to understand why there was an audience ready to listen to his message. That audience was created by resentment of the liberal democrats for failing to bring about real change. People were ready to hear the completely revisionist history that Marcos propagated. However much he was lying, he appeared to offer change from the wretched status quo.

AS: From outside the Philippines, it was shocking to see the dictator’s son win the election. The movement that overthrew the dictatorship in 1986 was an inspiration at the time. There was such tremendous expectation not just for establishing a democracy but also for social and economic change. Why was this squandered? What should the left have done differently in the original uprising and over the last few decades to avoid this nightmarish scenario?

WB: This is a complex but important question. First, we must remember that the left, especially the underground left, played a very important part in the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship. But when it came to the uprising in 1986, most of the left did not believe that it could win without armed revolution and so, because of this analysis, stood aside from the movement.

Because of the left’s absence, the liberal forces based on the middle and upper classes dictated the parameters of the People Power Revolution and the EDSA Republic (the abbreviation of the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, where the popular protests took place). These parameters restricted the program of change to human rights, formal democratic rights, and due process.

The parameters excluded land reform, income redistribution, and other measures that would address the problem of inequality and poverty. The formal democracy won by the uprising left the structural foundations of inequality in the Philippines in place.

The United States played a big role in setting these parameters. It pushed for successive elected governments to implement neoliberal measures. These parameters became an iron cage, restricted all reforms to formal democracy, and prevented any radical measures about social and economic change, which the country’s new constitution had at least rhetorically promised.

Formal democracy created a political system with competition among dynastic elites for political power. There was democratic competition in a narrow sense between them, but they all formed a united front against real structural change.

Even when there were some reforms passed like the agrarian reform law, they made sure to include all sorts of loopholes that enabled the elite to retain most of their land. That is the root of deep discontent with the political system established in 1986.

AS: Given Marcos’s victory in the election, it seems important to set the record straight about his father’s dictatorship. A lot of people both in the Philippines and internationally have only a dim memory of it or never really learned about it. What was its character? Given this, what can we expect of his son in power?

WB: Marcos Sr.’s regime was a real, brutal dictatorship. It was essentially the rule of one man. He had control over the levers of power with the support of the military and, until the very end of his rule, the support of the United States.

To preserve his rule, Marcos used repression. There was little to no judicial process. Torture was widespread. There was mass imprisonment. He jailed some 70,000 activists and carried out the extrajudicial killings of more than 3,000 people during his fourteen years in power. So, it was a fairly savage dictatorship.

Marcos and his cronies facilitated the extreme concentration of wealth, especially in their hands. They took over key sectors of the economy from other capitalists. So, there was monopolization of wealth and dispossession of rival capitalist blocs.

The economy underwent deep economic stagnation and indebtedness during his rule. The regime was forced to take more and more loans just to make interest payments on the country’s debt. The United States backed these loans because Marcos was their man. Remember, Marcos was a good friend of Ronald Reagan. During his Second Cold War with the Soviet Union, he stepped up support for the dictatorship in order to preserve Washington’s naval bases in the country.

U.S. President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, meeting on a presidential visit to the Philippines in July 1969. They are greeted by the Marcos family, Dictator Ferndidand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, along with their children, including current President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Photo by White House photo office.

What can we expect of his son? Well, his campaign avoided almost any discussion about programs for governing. It entirely focused on calling for unity and ducked almost all questions about what they would do in power. They are hostile to open discussion and debate about policy.

That is especially true of Sara Duterte, the vice-president elect and daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, the outgoing president. She would not attend any of the debates.

I dubbed Marco Jr. and Sara Duterte the Axis of Evil. During the campaign, all they did was just project an image of unity devoid of any content. They practice what sociologist Nicole Curato has called toxic positivity. Marcos Jr. just kept repeating that he was a regular guy with a regular family who just wanted to do good for the country. And he refused to admit that his father had done anything wrong.

Of course, this is all a pack of lies. The Marcos family stole something like $10 billion and deposited it into Swiss bank accounts. When challenged about this and presented with demands that he return the money, he denied the theft and claimed that he could not give back what he never had. Anyone who even spends just a little time researching the truth can prove that Marcos Jr. was simply lying.

But exposure of these lies without addressing the failure of liberal democrats to deliver any positive change was not going to sway the masses of people who are frustrated and angry about conditions in the Philippines today and looking for solutions. So, if you’re eighteen or nineteen or twenty years old, Marcos’ toxic positivity about unity and a return to a golden era can be convincing.

Some people knew the real history. But they would excuse Marcos Jr. by saying that you cannot blame the sins of the father on the son. In that way, they managed to put some distance between the two.

Marcos’s strategy worked. The evasion of any discussion about program, the toxic positivity stressing unity, and the internet campaign to revise his father’s grotesque record found a receptive audience desperate for change. He galvanized a protest vote against the liberal establishment.

AS: What is the character of Marcos’s incoming government? Will it be right-wing populist in the vein of Rodrigo Duterte, Narenda Modi, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro? What is the new government likely to do?

WB: We can get a sense of what it will be from how Marcos and Duterte ran their campaign. It was based on denial of the fact that the dictatorship produced misery, plunder, human rights violations, and a complete repression of democratic rights.

They know the history but refuse to acknowledge it—and will certainly not apologize for it. Given such moral hypocrisy, it would be no surprise to see their new administration adopt authoritarian methods and disrespect democratic processes and human rights.

Sara Duterte explicitly ran on her father’s brutal legacy. He subjected 27,000 people to extra-judicial execution during his so-called War on Drugs. His daughter will attempt to continue such barbaric policies.

We got a taste of their undemocratic approach during the election. They refused to participate in the national debates. They refused to expose themselves to arguments and a clash of ideas. They basically told the country, “Go to hell, we are not obligated to participate in a debate.” Just as they spurned the debates, which have become an institution in our country, they will ignore any calls for democratic accountability once in office.

I personally experienced the autocratic way they respond to demands for accountability. When I called on Sara Duterte to join the vice-presidential debates with all the other candidates, she charged me with being a narco politician, which is crazy, one of her aides brought a libel suit against me, and I was declared persona non grata in her city of Davao.

That’s the kind of response that we’re going to get from this administration once it’s in power. Not accountability but evasions, lies, and threats.

They are likely to be all sorts of symbolic changes. For example, they might rename the international airport, currently named after Benigno Aquino Jr., an opponent of the Marcos dictatorship who was assassinated at the airport in 1983.

AS: I was struck by an article you wrote in Foreign Policy in Focus where you called attention to the problems of this coalition and the difficulties it will have governing. People have been promised a return to a golden age, but that is clearly not going to happen. If anything, conditions are going to worsen for the majority. What will this mean for the new government?

WB: The new administration that will take power on June 30 will be rife with contradictions. There was no programmatic basis for the alliance between Marcos and Duterte except for power sharing between them and the other political dynasties they gathered together.

That is a very flimsy basis for a coalition to last. So, I expect that kind of power sharing is inevitably going to be problematic and unstable. It already faces problems.

At the beginning of the campaign, Duterte announced that she wanted to be the secretary of national defense. But Marcos just stated that she would be assigned to secretary of education. He is obviously worried about giving her a powerful position of control over the military, perhaps one of the institutions most influenced by her father. So, everyone noticed that he already demoted her to a position she did not want.

I think this opportunistic Axis of Evil could unravel fairly quickly. I give it a year before you we will see real fissures emerge.

The second issue is the problems they face when they are unable to deliver on people’s expectation of change. They made utterly unrealistic promises, claiming they would bring down the cost of a kilo of rice to 20 pesos. They cannot do that without tremendous government subsidies and massive structural reforms to the way the state operates. They’re simply not going to carry those out, so they will disappoint people quickly.

Third, we can expect a split in the military bureaucracy. Remember, a section of the military helped bring down Marcos Sr. in 1986. That segment of the military is anti-Marcos and sees this family as creating instability.

Finally, there is a whole sector of the population numbering in the millions that will not respect his government as legitimate. These are the people who liked my slogan “Fuck You, Marcos.” They will not accept that this family is back in power.

Of course, the new government will try to satisfy everybody, but I expect those efforts, which can only be symbolic, will fail. All these contradictions will eventually burst out in the new government, within the state bureaucracy, and between them and the wider population.

That could produce an unstable situation where all sorts of things could happen. This is a family that in the past has used monopolistic control of power. They are not accustomed to sharing power even with other elites, let alone listening to the working masses. Authoritarianism is in their political DNA.

AS: You’ve given us a picture of what the new government is likely to do domestically. It will also face enormous geopolitical questions. It is coming to power as the rivalry between the United States and China is heating up. How is it going to position itself in the rivalry?

WB: There will be aggressive competition between China and the United States to get Marcos’ allegiance. The personal factor will play a role in this. The Marcos’s are not enamored of the US government. They remember how Reagan told Marco Sr. to leave the country in order to placate and contain the enormous revolt against his rule. As the United States has done in other cases, they sacrificed the dictator to save the state.

So, there’s bitterness in the Marcos dynasty about that and also about all the lawsuits in the United States against the family for their corruption, human rights violations, and theft of the country’s assets. In fact, they are unwilling to travel to the United States for fear of being charged with crimes, detained, and brought to trial.

All this will make Marcos Jr. sympathetic to China’s entreaties. It will say that it has better resources to share with the Philippines than the United States has.

But the Philippine military has a deep relationship with the United States, and it will not let that be damaged. And Washington will do everything it can to keep the country in its security umbrella.

We saw what Duterte did in this situation—and it’s probably a good precedent for what Marcos will do. Duterte began by taking an anti-US and pro-China stance. He looked to China to secure economic opportunities through its Belt and Road Initiative.

He also said that he would cancel the visiting forces agreement that permits the US military to position its ships and troops in its five military bases in the Philippines. But he eventually buckled down. He turned back to the United States, while still trying to preserve a relationship with China.

We are likely to see the same thing happen to Marcos. The US government will push him to allow even greater basing in the Philippines as part of its effort to contain China. China will offer him economic deals. Marcos will end up balancing between all these pressures in an incoherent and contradictory fashion.

AS: Given the unstable nature of the new administration and the persistence of all the problems of poverty, the pandemic, health care, land, and inequality, what are the tasks of the left in this new period under Marcos?

WB: We have to create an attractive democratic socialist alternative for the Philippines. The left has to address the popular grievances from poverty to housing and to lay out how we can overcome them with immediate reforms and, eventually, more fundamental changes to the country’s economic structure.

This cannot be just a theoretical exercise. We have to get practical about concrete programs that improve people’s lives. Our campaign has this in its platform, but it must be fleshed out some more.

Second, we must connect with people in new ways. Our campaign enabled us to do this. We drew people into a dialogue. We have to build on this. We must involve people in a conversation to dispel all the anticommunist ideas that the military and the elite used to marginalize the left during the Cold War.

We need to shift away from what I call the vanguardist conception that the party knows best, and its role is to bring its knowledge to the people. Under conditions of a dictatorship, when a very centralized underground organization may be necessary. But under the kind of system that we’ve had over the last several decades, we really need to build organization with a more dialogic and democratic relationship with people.

We must bring the people into the process of discussion, debate, and common organizing in order to create a mass base for socialism. Such an open process will transform the left and people’s conceptions of it. It will break all sorts of patterns of top-down organizing, as well as anticommunist stereotypes about the left.

We have an opportunity for the left to transform itself. If it doesn’t change, it will remain a marginal force, as it has been for the last several decades.

And, as I put it in the article in Foreign Policy in Focus, we cannot discount the responsibility of the left in enabling Marcos Jr. to come to power. We failed to provide an alternative to the liberal establishment and to prevent the right from positioning itself as the only real opposition. That left the door open to Marcos to appeal to young people.

Usually, young people gravitate to the left for change, but the left has been either trapped in a coalition with the liberals or absent, splintered, and trapped in a kind of 1970s rhetoric. So, Marcos filled the vacuum by claiming to represent change.

With Marcos Jr. coming to power, we cannot just rely on the contradictions among the elites to develop and bring down his regime. We need a positive movement and a positive vision that can inspire especially the youth for a fight for democratic socialism. Otherwise, we will just see more internecine warfare among dynastic elites.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by David Stanley; modified by Tempest.

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Ashley Smith View All

Ashley Smith is a member of the Tempest Collective in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.