The mighty machine that led Bongbong to victory

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In the days after Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s landslide victory, friends and colleagues in the US and Europe, with memories of his father’s kleptocracy, asked me how that could have happened. With all the forces working in Marcos’ favor, a more pertinent question might be: What would prevent that?

If you spent any time in the Manila area ahead of the Philippines’ presidential election, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Marcos’ main opponent, Leni Robredo, was about to storm into office. She seemed to have the support of the city‘s professional class, civil society advocates, students and sections of the business elite. Their last rally in the financial district was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. In posh neighborhoods like White Plains in Quezon City, Robredo posters far outnumbered Bongbong, as Marcos is known. (I was reminded of Brooklyn, where I lived during the 2016 US election, with its Hillary Clinton paraphernalia.) Drive north about an hour and the picture changed dramatically. A giant truck dealership along a freeway was decked out with Bongbong billboards running the length of its roof – a political sign as well as the geographic end of Manila’s suburbs.

As with the 2016 US election, Bongbong’s victory was influenced by a formidable social media machine trying to sanitize his father’s autocratic rule. Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, was forced to flee in 1986 amid a popular uprising, a deep recession, a spiraling debt and the erosion of US support for his regime. “They presented fake news and revisionist history,” Robredo voter Mark Domingo, 42, told me after the magnitude of the Marcos landslide became clear. He held his wife Cupid’s hand as they sat at a volunteer compound and expressed their anger via Meta Platform Inc.’s Facebook and TikTok Inc. Social media companies “ruined the Philippines,” he said.

At the same time, unlike Trump, Marcos conducted a disciplined campaign. Eschewing direct contact with the media, he left image promotion to social media — Filipinos are some of the world’s most active users — and scripted campaign events.

In fact, Marcos’ campaign had little focus on political specifics, reducing the likelihood that he would stumble. It also allowed people to project whatever they wanted onto him and in turn gave him an opportunity to inspire nostalgia for glory days that never were. The strategy worked for a number of reasons. While gross domestic product rose sharply at the beginning of the year, the pandemic recession was deep and left lasting trauma. The nation has one of the youngest populations in Asia, which is usually considered a plus. It also means that many voters were either not alive or very young when Marcos Sr. ruled with an iron fist and looted state coffers. When his epic flaws are pointed out, many fans shrug and say they don’t care, or worse, claim it’s fake news.

China’s role in the Philippines has also become a double-edged sword. While Beijing has helped fund much-needed new infrastructure, its encroachment into the South China Sea has hurt coastal communities that have made their livings on the water for generations. On a visit in 2019, I met fishermen who claimed Marcos’ father brought strength and respect to their country. China wouldn’t dare push them around if he were still alive and in power, they claimed. Bongbong cleverly capitalized on that fear on social media. But he also benefited from carefully building alliances with regional political bosses. His family hails from northern Luzon, the largest and most populous island. His running mate Sara Duterte, who is also the outgoing president’s daughter, received support from southern stronghold Mindanao, where she (like her father) was mayor.

Religion also came into play for Bongbong and Duterte. In the Philippines, faith means mostly Christianity, especially Catholicism – prior to its American administration, the country had been a Spanish colony for three centuries. While the Catholic Church played a large role in mobilizing opposition to Marcos’ father, its influence is in relative decline. Today, American-style megachurches are widespread, as well as congregations that appear to resemble conservative evangelical groups. The best known is the Iglesia Ni Cristo, which the Catholic Church despises. It threw its weight behind Bongbong and did the same for Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.

INC, as it is known, demands absolute obedience from its members – and gives block votes to candidates it supports. Formed in the early 20th century, the group has grown in stature and influence along with peers over the past several decades. “Although these churches represent a small minority, dwarfed by the Catholic Church, through careful organization and disciplined pastoral teaching they have been able to mobilize financial and electoral power,” wrote John Choo, Evelyn Tan, and Daniel P.S. Goh in a report for the ISEAS from 2020 Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. (INC endorsed the successful presidential nominees of Benigno S. Aquino III in 2010 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004, suggesting an ability to spot winners and shape them.)

In the end, Marcos’ triumph was fueled by several mutually reinforcing factors, from the urban-rural divide and the electoral weight of religious fault lines to economic bias and identity perceptions. These issues are, of course, evident beyond the Philippines, as they drove the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote and the likely return of Republican control of Congress in November. But while historical parallels make the outcome all but inevitable, disappointment among Marcos’ opponents underscores the benefit of hindsight.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the crushing magnitude of Bongbong’s victory became clear, Robredo supporters gathered at a volunteer center in central Manila. They shed a few silent tears, sang, held hands, and nibbled on a McDonald’s consolation snack. This was in contrast to the wild scenes outside Marcos’ headquarters. There, less than an hour earlier, a squirming crowd of flag-waving, cheering supporters – few of whom wore face masks, which are still required – crowded around your columnist, shouting and gesturing. They blocked traffic and climbed onto cars.

This fleeting moment could mean a much longer legacy. The Philippines limits presidents to single six-year terms, a result of post-1986 constitutional reform intended to prevent another dictatorship. Will the machine that got Bongbong to the top job outlive him? Sara Duterte and her backers should be able to rely on that.

More from this author and others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Marcos Jr.’s rise is cause for despair, not shock: Daniel Moss

• The Philippine economy is great – in numbers: Daniel Moss

• Marco’s comeback runs on manipulated nostalgia: Clara F. Marques

• The Philippines can’t afford to go back in time: editorial

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This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief for Economics at Bloomberg News.

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