Why the Marcos Day bill has triggered protests in the Philippines

The second most corrupt politician of all time, former president Marcos's name remains forever disgraced

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When Ferdinand Marcos fled into exile in 1986 after the People Power Revolution toppled his dictatorship, the verdict on the Philippines’ former strongman appeared unanimous. Time magazine summed it up thus: he had “moved his country backward – from democracy to autocracy, from prosperity to poverty, from general peace to a widespread Communist insurgency.”

He and his wife Imelda had treated “the national treasury as if it were their personal checking account” and had looted “perhaps $5 billion.” In 2004 the NGO Transparency International upped that estimate to $10 bn and labelled him the second most corrupt politician of all time.

To the rest of the world the Marcos name remains forever disgraced. In the Philippines, however, a quite remarkable rehabilitation has taken place. Marcos's widow Imelda – infamous for her shoe collection – was elected to the country's House of Representatives four times between 2010 and 2019. The couple's daughter Imee is a Senator, and was formerly governor of the family's home province of Ilocos Norte, while her brother Ferdinand Jnr was almost elected as the country's vice president in 2016, losing by only 0.64 per cent of the vote.

In that same year Marcos’s body – which had been refrigerated since his death in 1989 – was flown to Manila and buried with military honours at the National Heroes’ Cemetery. And now a bill is currently going through the Philippines’ congress (it has already been passed by the lower house) which will declare his birthday, September 11, “Marcos Day” and make it a public holiday in Ilocos Norte. The former president, states the bill with no discernible irony, “served as inspiration for young leaders to exemplify his leadership and governance”.

epa08660481 A motorcycle food delivery rider is seen next to the gravesite of former President Ferdinand Marcos during his 103rd birth anniversary at the Heroes Cemetery in Taguig, Philippines, 11 September 2020.  According to reports, a bill at Congress is seeking to declare 11 September a special holiday to commemorate the birth of former political strongman Ferdinand Marcos in his home province of Ilocos Norte.  EPA/FRANCIS R. MALASIG

Marcos was not just greedy. Under his rule thousands were tortured and murdered. How has it come to pass that now, as the award-winning Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco put it, “the laundering of the dictator’s legacy is nearly complete”?

Mr Syjuco, who is a visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi, identified as one reason a “culture of impunity” that has seen former presidents embroiled in or even convicted of corruption charges still, nevertheless, managing to return to elected office. One congressman, he notes, won re-election twice from behind bars. “To outsiders, all that seems outrageous. To Filipinos, it’s just politics as usual.”

epa08660526 Protesters hold a banner with a message criticizing former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos during a demonstration at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes) in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 11 September 2020. According to reports, a bill at Congress is seeking to declare 11 September a special holiday to commemorate the birth of former political strongman Ferdinand Marcos in his home province of Ilocos Norte.  EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA

Another reason may be that the Philippines is not the only country where many prefer to gloss over troubling parts of their histories. In neighbouring Indonesia General Suharto’s 31 years in power from 1967-1998 led him to take the top spot on Transparency International’s most corrupt leader list but, like Marcos, he was never tried in court. Both also had achievements they could point to, especially in terms of infrastructure and development.

There is a big difference between accepting that Marcos's record may not be entirely black and white and holding him up as a role model for youth

And in the case of Marcos, when he was first elected president in 1965 there was an evident brilliance and charisma to him. A great orator and lawyer, he was said to have been able to recite the Philippines’ constitution backwards.

Juan Ponce Enrile, a minister under Marcos who later helped bring the armed forces to support the 1986 revolution, once said that if Marcos had ended the martial law he imposed in 1972 five years later he “would have been enshrined as the best president the country ever had”. Even Time magazine conceded that Marcos “had once been an effective and even popular ruler.”

But there is a big difference between accepting that Marcos’s record may not be entirely black and white and holding him up as a role model for youth. There has been opposition to the move, with one rights group saying that the bill “seeks to deodorise the image of a murderer, a plunderer, and a criminal.” But the president of the senate, Vicente Sotto, expects it “to breeze through” the upper chamber.

The problem, according to Dr Aries Arugay, professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman, is that whereas some countries with authoritarian pasts have come to terms with their history through truth and reconciliation programmes, “such consensus doesn’t exist in the Philippines. There was no reckoning, no closure, no accountability,” he tells me.

“In a way the Marcoses never left,” says Dr Arugay. “They were just dormant. They were just waiting for a friendlier presidency.” In that of Rodrigo Duterte, whose father served in Marcos’s first cabinet, they found one. In return, the Marcoses were “one of the few oligarchic families who supported Duterte in 2016,” says Dr Arugay, referring to the firms and families that are said to hold true power in the country.

He also points out that knowledge of what happened during the Marcos years is scant among younger generations. “There is only one and a half pages about the dictatorship in elementary school textbooks.” At the same time, he says, “There is still nostalgia for the martial law years, and this is magnified by social media and misinformation.”

Underlying it all is the sense that the 1986 revolution was such a swift success that it was left unfinished. The fact that regime stalwarts like Mr Enrile ditched Marcos meant that post-revolution politics was filled with figures who had worked with him before. “They suddenly became democrats and were rewarded for leaving him behind,” says Dr Arugay. “Their counterparts in other countries were either imprisoned or killed.”

There may well have been protests over the Marcos Day bill were Manila not under a strict Covid-19 lockdown. But it seems certain to become law. Less sure are the presidential prospects of Ferdinand Jnr. The support he has had from Mr Duterte may have been more transactional than deep, and if “Bongbong” – as Jnr is known – is less than a dead cert for the next election Mr Duterte will likely come out for a candidate who will protect him and his legacy. “But he is a Marcos. And that is a brand name in Philippine politics,” says Dr Arugay.

Marcos Snr may still be reviled abroad. But the world hasn’t caught up with how they think of him at home. A day named in his memory is, I predict, not the last honour that will be bestowed upon him.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National