On Feb. 25, 1986, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, from nuns to office workers, occupied one of the Philippine capital’s main arteries—the culmination of a four-day mass protest dubbed the “People Power Revolution.” It was unlike anything Asia, or the world, had seen before. By evening, the authoritarian regime of ailing President Ferdinand Marcos ended—with Marcos leaving for exile in Hawaii along with his wife and children. Corazon, the widow and leader of pro-democracy resistance to President Ferdinand Marcos was elected as his replacement.
More than three decades later, in October 2021, the late dictator’s son and namesake, 64-year-old Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., announced his intention to become the next president of the Philippines. Sara Duterte is the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte and he has formed a partnership with her. They make a formidable team, and are far ahead of other contenders in opinion polls: Marcos had an unprecedented 45-point lead over his closest rival—current vice president Leni Robredo—in a February survey.
One data point stands out from opinion polls: The majority of Marcos’ supporters are those under 30, voters who were not born when his father imposed nationwide martial law and presided over human rights violations, corruption, and a massive economic slowdown. The younger Marcos also knows where to meet these supporters: his team engages with millions of users on social platforms—especially TikTok and Facebook—both inside the Philippines and abroad.
“He’s a person with a heart,” says Reian Azcune, a 20-year-old voter in Rizal province. “In all of his campaigns and rallies he never really intended to make fun of others, or he never maligned anyone.”
Marcos Jr.’s 2022 presidential campaign advocates “unity” as a means of lifting the country from the economic doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic. This message has not been received well by Marcos Jr., who is now the most divided candidate in the race.. Political opponents decry the human rights violations during his father’s dictatorship, the billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth, and the family’s unpaid taxes. They point out, however, that Imelda Marcos, the matriarch of Imelda Marcos’ family was convicted for graft.
Overseas Filipino worker Sherina Erno doesn’t plan on voting for Bongbong Marcos in the polls. The Marcoses, she says, have “ruled with martial law for so long. So why is the Philippines still in shambles?”
Critics claim that a Bongbong Marcos win would be a serious threat to Philippine democracy. Already, the Southeast Asian nation of 110 million people has experienced Duterte’s bloody drug war and crackdown on dissent, which was so reminiscent of the elder Marcos’ brutal years in power.
Continue reading: Marcos’ Martial Law
But for those who did not experience his father’s regime, the younger Marcos appears to offer a refreshing choice—especially after preceding presidents failed to solve the grinding poverty, weak infrastructure, and deep-seated corruption that dominate the daily lives of so many Filipinos. “You have a succession of administrations which really came short of fulfilling the fundamental ideals and aspirations of the Filipino people, which was expressed in the 1986 revolution,” says Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science and Asian geopolitics expert based in Manila.
The late President Ferdinand Marcos waves goodbye to supporters from the balcony of Malacañang Palace in Manila following his oath-taking ceremony as victor in the Philippine Presidential snap elections, Feb. 25 1986. He is flanked by his wife, First Lady Imelda Marcos. They are also accompanied by their son Ferdinand “Bongbong”, Marcos Jr. Marcos, his family and friends made this last public appearance before they fled to Hawaii.
Alex Bowie—Getty Images
What is Ferdinand Marcos’s legacy in the Philippines?
In September 1972, Marcos declared a nationwide martial law to quell the escalating demonstrations of civil libertarians as well as threats of communist rebellion.
Data from Amnesty International shows that while Marcos was in power, around 70,000 “enemies of the state” were detained, some 34,000 of them tortured, and more than 3,000 killed. Independent media outlets were also closed down. Repression was continued for nine more years.
According to his loyalists, it was an era of great development. Foreign loans were used to finance the construction of cultural centers, hospitals for specialists, and even a nuclear power plant. But the power plant was never used, and the country’s external debt soared from $800 million at the start of Marcos’ first term in 1965 to $28.3 billion when he was ousted—more than 80% of the country’s GDP. In 1984, the Philippine GDP shrank by a record 7%—the worst contraction since World War II. “Crony capitalism,” in which Marcos favored the business interests of friends and relatives, was blamed.
Marcos’ family was also charged with stealing as much as $10 billion from the state coffers. This claim has been repeatedly refuted by authorities, even though they already had $3.3 billion of unaccounted wealth.
Learn More: Imelda Marcos Had Part Of Her Art Collection Taken
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., presidential candidate and son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, greets supporters during a rally in Las Piñas City, suburban Manila, on March 13, 2022.
Jam Sta Rosa—AFP/ Getty Images
What makes Bongbong Marcos so beloved?
Marcos Jr.’s opponents repeatedly bring up his father’s legacy, but experts say that is backfiring. “Many people are voting for Marcos, not because they like Marcos more; they just don’t like being told and being treated as bad [people],” says Antonio Contreras, a political analyst in Manila. “No one likes that.”
His decision not to engage in mudslinging has won the support of voters. They also approve of his pledge to unify the nation while keeping the Rodrigo Duterte legacy. “A great leader doesn’t need to influence someone with hate,” says 20-year-old voter Azcune.
This positive messaging extends to Marcos’ social media platforms, where political content is interspersed with light-hearted family vlogs. His TikTok followers number over 1.2million, with around 2,000,000 subscribers to YouTube and another 5.3 Million on Facebook. Fatima Gaw, assistant professor of communication research at the University of the Philippines, says it’s “almost impossible” to distinguish between propaganda and genuine support on such platforms.
Marcos Jr. is also able to benefit from a strong power base in northern provinces in a country that values dynasty in politics. As a 23 year-old vice governor, he entered politics in Ilocos Norte’s home province in 1981.
In 1991, the Marcos family returned to exile and started to reshape its image. Bongbong Marcos was elected senator in 2010 and ran unsuccessfully for the vice presidency in 2016.
Throughout his time in public life, he has refused to apologize for rights violations and corruption during his father’s reign—saying that history should be left “to the professors.” But educators have shirked the task. Recent research also revealed that as low as 6% pages from selected 5th- and 6th-grade Philippine school textbooks had been given to Marcos’ dictatorship.
“The education system did not teach the martial law experience properly, historically—so that means that voters born after 1986 can easily be convinced that all of that was not true. Or at the very least, that it’s not important,” says Antonio La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. The effect is notable, as more than half the voters are between 18-41 years old.
The Philippines has also failed to hold members of the Marcos’ family accountable for their crimes—matriarch Imelda is still free. Bongbong Marcos, himself convicted of tax evasion in 1997,The ruling was modified by an appeals court and the decision did not require him to be sent to jail. It’s “an indictment on the complete failure of the Philippines to institute rule of law,” Heydarian, the political science professor, says—adding that it also shows the country’s failure to confront its dark past.
This result has created a remarkable attachment with the Marcos clan. At the launch of Bongbong Marcos’ campaign, a celebrity emcee rallied the crowd saying: “We have a winner, the fight is over! The love for Ferdinand Marcos Sr. is alive!”
Protesters hold anti-Marcos banners and raise their fists while they wave them in front of Quezon City’s People Power monument. This was in commemoration of the 36th anniversary since the People Power Revolution, the 1986 revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos. It took place in suburban Manila on February 25, 2022.
Ted Aljibe—AFP/Getty Images
Does a Bongbong-Marcos win pose a threat or opportunity to democracy?
For sociologist Nicole Curato, the coming election is nothing less than “a battle for the nation’s narrative.” Marcos Jr.’s critics will argue that victory signals “democracy’s failure to hold corrupt politicians accountable,” she tells TIME in an email. “His supporters will say that Marcos Jr.’s presidency will signal the country’s democracy [is] moving forward and looking to the future.”
Whether or not Bongbong Marcos will be like his father if he is elected president, meanwhile, remains to be seen—but experts agree that he’s likely not to follow his father’s strongman footsteps.“He doesn’t have the kind of drive and ambition and scale of vision that his father had,” says Heydarian. “And so I doubt the Philippines will move towards a 20th century-style dictatorship. I think that is kind of passé.”
But at the very least a Bongbong Marcos presidency will signal that the country’s problem with dynastic politics is worse than ever. “This is like just cementing the ruling class,” La Viña, the former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, says. “He’s not an outsider taking over.”
Here are more must-read stories from TIME