Can Bongbong Marcos Change His Family’s Brutal Legacy?

fter a landslide victory in one of the Philippines’ most polarizing elections, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.—a former senator and the son of a late dictator—was sworn in as the Philippines’ president on June 30.

The inauguration was attended by delegates from many countries, including the U.S. Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff as well as Wang Qishan, Vice President of China.

“I once knew a man who saw what little had been achieved since independence in a land of people with the greatest potential for achievement. They were still poor. But he got it done—sometimes with the needed support, sometimes without. It will be the same with his son. You will get no excuses from me,” said Marcos Jr. in his inaugural speech, doubling down on the legacy of his dictator father.

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Marcos Jr.’s win is the result of a decades-long whitewashing of his family’s brutal history, as well as the failed promises of succeeding governments to make life better for Filipinos after the elder Marcos was overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986.

Marcos Sr. was accused of plundering state funds and amassing billions in unaccounted wealth over his two-decade reign. Inexcessive foreign borrowing pushed the Philippines into debt, and many Filipinos fell precariously in poverty. In order to quell dissident voices, he imprisoned them, closed media outlets, and established nine years of martial laws, with tens or thousands of human rights violations.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (incoming Philippine president) and Rodrigo Duterte (outgoing President), attend Marcos’ Inauguration Ceremony at Malacanang Presidential Palace Grounds in Manila, Philippines on June 30, 2022.

Francis R. Masig/AP

In his ascent to the top post, the younger Marcos and his family repeatedly denied involvement in the atrocities of his father’s regime. Instead, he rode on a message of “unity” and vowed to shore up the post-pandemic economy dented by a decline in tourism and a dip in remittances from migrant workers. Although he has reassured markets that he had selected ministers, important positions, such as those for the Health Portfolio, remain unfilled.

Whether Marcos Jr. can mitigate the memory of his father’s atrocities is yet to be seen. Popular activist and survivors of martial law protested in New York and Manila against the new administration. In large numbers, protesters marched through Times Square chanting “Never Again”.

But if former President Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity is anything to go by, it appears many Filipinos choose not to care as long as there’s food on the table. Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, says the “performative populism” of Duterte provided a blueprint for subsequent governments.

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“You had allegations of extrajudicial killings en masse, you had crisis in diplomatic relations right and left, you had a president who had very limited respect for basic decorum or the dignity of the office of the presidency,” Heydarian says. “And yet, as long as the economy was doing fine, [Duterte’s]His popularity was very high. And shockingly, even when the economy was not doing well, he maintained relatively high approval ratings.”

For a new leader, there are serious economic issues

The Marcos Cabinet inherits a weakly performing economy amid global financial uncertainty. It brings together experienced technocrats as well as family friends. The country is saddled with $231 billion in national debt—roughly 63% of the GDP. The world’s economy has already been hampered by the conflict in Ukraine and the looming pandemic. With a rise in the Federal Reserve’s interest rates, fears of a global recession have increased.

J.C. Punongbayan, an assistant professor of economics at the University of the Philippines, says Marcos Jr.’s ministerial appointments have pacified a market that once worried over his vague economic plans. However, he is yet to identify his foreign affairs and health secretaries.

“There are too many posts right now that are empty,” Punongbayan says. “There’s [also]There are many expectations for this government. So I think they better fill up those posts.”

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Marcos Jr., who is trying to reduce food inflation has taken control of the agricultural portfolio. He will also hold his presidency concurrently. Heydarian says he believes Marcos Jr. is projecting himself as “the man who addresses the most important issues, including gut issues.”

However, the decision may be due to the inability of high-ranking experts to manage the portfolio. Marcos Jr. had promised to grow rice production and lower the prices of staple rice grains. The price range was between $1.20 to $0.20 per kilo. Rolando Dy, agriculture economist and executive director of the Center for Food and Agribusiness at the University of Asia and the Pacific, told Reuters that bringing rice prices down to this level would be “impossible.”

The Marcos Legacy Revived

Marcos Jr.’s portfolio choice is unsurprising, however, considering his late father’s agricultural programs. During the elder Marcos’ rule, the Philippines became a rice exporter, after a program aimed at increasing grain production by offering subsidized loans to farmers for buying fertilizer and equipment. The program was a failure as it drove rural banks bankrupt and left farmers with unpaid debt.

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Marcos Jr. declared that he will revive the agriculture sector in the Philippines to help it become self-sufficient. This was part of Marcos Jr.’s presidential campaign amid increasing food prices. Observers say it is part of his campaign strategy to evoke nostalgia over his father’s legacy—even though the dictator’s economic policies led the Southeast Asian country to its worst recession since World War II.

Now, he can no longer rest on his father’s laurels. Antonio La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila, tells TIME that his ability to face the many existing headwinds will determine how Filipinos will receive him. “It’s about the future now,” La Viña says.

Even his critics would not like him to lose the management of the economy. “Because everyone loses if that happens,” says Punongbayan.

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