The Powerful Machine That Brought Bongbong to Victory

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

If you had spent any time in the Manila region before the Philippines’ presidential election, you might think that Marcos’ main opponent, Leni Robredo, would take office. She seemed to have the support of the urban professional class, civil society advocates, students and sections of the business elite. Her last meeting, in the financial district, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. In tony neighborhoods, such as White Plains in Quezon City, there were many more posters of Robredo than the one for Bongbong, as Marcos is known. (It made me think of Brooklyn, where I lived during the 2016 US election, with its Hillary Clinton paraphernalia.) Drive north for about an hour and the picture changed dramatically. A huge truck dealership along a highway carried Bongbong billboards the length of its roof — a political landmark as much as the geographic end of Manila’s suburbs.

Like the 2016 US election, Bongbong’s run-up to victory was influenced by a formidable social media machine, one that sought to purge his father’s autocratic rule. Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, was forced to flee in 1986 because of a popular uprising, a deep recession, a debt spiral 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 Marcos’s landslide became clear. He held the hand of his wife, Amor, as they sat in a volunteer complex to express their anger at Meta Platform Inc.’s Facebook and TikTok Inc. Social media companies “has ruined the Philippines,” he said.

At the same time, unlike Trump, Marcos led a disciplined campaign. He eschewed direct involvement in the media, leaving the promotion of images to social media – Filipinos are among the world’s most active users – and scripted campaign events.

In fact, the Marcos’ campaign was light on policy spec, reducing the chances of him tripping. It also allowed people to project onto him whatever they wanted, and conversely, it gave him the chance to stir nostalgia for glory days that never existed. The strategy worked for several reasons. While gross domestic product boomed at the start of the year, the pandemic recession was a deep recession that left lasting trauma. The country has one of the youngest populations in Asia, which is normally considered a plus. It also means that a large number of voters were not alive or very young when Marcos Sr. ruled with an iron fist and plundered the treasury. When its epic flaws are noticed, many fans shrug and say it means nothing to them, 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 reach in the South China Sea has hurt coastal communities that have made their living on the water for generations. During a visit in 2019, I met fishermen who claimed that Marcos’ father brought strength and respect to their country. China wouldn’t dare push them around if he were alive and in power, they claimed. Bongbong cleverly capitalized on this fear on social media. But he also benefited from the careful building of loyalties 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 daughter of the outgoing president, received support from the southern stronghold of Mindanao, where she (like her father) served as mayor.

Religion also came through for Bongbong and Duterte. In the Philippines, faith primarily means Christianity, especially Catholicism—before the US government, the country was a Spanish colony for three centuries. While the Catholic Church played a major role in building opposition to Marcos’s father, its influence has been waning relatively. Predominant now are American-style megachurches, as well as congregations resembling conservative evangelical groups. Iglesia Ni Cristo, who despises the Catholic Church, is the most prominent. It threw its weight behind Bongbong and did the same for Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.

INC, as it’s known, demands full obedience from its members – providing block votes to candidates it endorses. Founded in the early 20th century, the group has grown in status and influence over the decades, along with peers. “Although they are a small minority dwarfed by the Catholic Church, these churches have been able to mobilize financial and electoral power through careful organization and disciplined pastoral education,” wrote John Choo, Evelyn Tan and Daniel PS Goh. in a 2020 report for the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. (INC approved the successful presidential runs of Benigno S. Aquino III in 2010 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004, suggesting its ability to recognize and shape winners.)

Ultimately, Marcos’ triumph was driven by several mutually reinforcing factors, from the urban-rural divide and the electoral weight of religious rifts to economic one-sidedness and perceptions of identity. These themes are, of course, recognizable outside the Philippines, as they fueled the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016 and the likely return of Republican control of Congress in November. But while historical parallels make the outcome seem anything but inevitable, the disappointment among Marcos’ opponents underscores the advantage of hindsight.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the crushing magnitude of Bongbong’s victory dawned on us, Robredo supporters gathered at a volunteer center in downtown Manila. They shed a few silent tears, sang, held hands, and nibbled on a McDonald’s comfort food. That contrasted with 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 is still mandatory—were yelling and gesturing for your columnist. They blocked traffic and got on cars.

That ephemeral moment could portend a much longer legacy. The Philippines limits presidents to single six-year terms, a product of the post-1986 constitutional reform designed to prevent another dictatorship. Will the machine that brought Bongbong to the top survive? Sara Duterte and her supporters can count on it.

More from this writer and others at Bloomberg Opinion:

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

• The Philippines’ economy is great — according to the numbers: Daniel Moss

• Marcos Comeback runs on manipulated nostalgia: Clara F. Marques

• The Philippines can’t afford to go back to the past: Editorial

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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on Asian economies. He was previously editor of Bloomberg News for economics.

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