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Clan politics reign but a family is divided in the race to rule the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara Duterte arrive for the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara Duterte arrive for the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018.

A foiled succession plan, sensational allegations, and a family feud at the pinnacle of power — these are the ingredients in what promises to be a riveting race to succeed outgoing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

The no-holds-barred contest scheduled for May 2022 has already produced what some observers see as an unsettling alliance: the offspring of two presidents pairing off in an unprecedented bid to run the country.

Taking full advantage of their prominence, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., has teamed up with Sara Duterte, daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte in the national election.

He is running for president in this dynastic duo, while she vies for vice president.

Are dynasties and celebrities narrowing democracy?

Political dynasties in the Philippines are nothing new.

Richard Heydarian, an expert on Philippine politics, says they are such a dominant feature in the country that between 70% and 90% of elected offices have been controlled by influential families.

But even by those standards, this Marcos-Duterte coupling takes powerful clan politics to a new level, says University of the Philippines Diliman political science professor Aries Arugay.

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. is surrounded by supporters after attending the recount of votes in the 2016 vice presidential race at the Supreme Court. Marcos narrowly lost that contest to Leni Robredo, the current vice president.
Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images
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Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. is surrounded by supporters after attending the recount of votes in the 2016 vice presidential race at the Supreme Court. Marcos narrowly lost that contest to Leni Robredo, the current vice president.

Speaking at a recent online forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Arugay says second generation dynasts are behaving like a "cartel".

He says their calculus is as damaging as it is simple: "Why can't we just share power, limit competition, and make sure that the next winners of the presidential and national elections come from us?"

Then there is the celebrity factor.

Heydarian notes a narrowing of democracy in the pairing of dynasties with the celebrity class, which includes former film stars, television personalities and sports figures. He says the two elite groups monopolize national office, putting elected office beyond the reach of a lot of ordinary Filipinos who he says may have the merit and passion to serve, but are effectively blocked from fully participating.

It makes a "mockery" of democracy, Heydarian says, but it's also a trend that could be difficult to reverse.

"After all, in politics you need a certain degree of messaging, communications machinery and charisma," he said. And, he added, especially in the age of social media, "It's not for dull people."

Running on a name, not a track record

Consider Manny Pacquiao.

His stardom as one of the legends of the boxing world has catapulted him into the race for president next year. He is currently a sitting senator and is in the running for the highest office not on the power of his record in the upper chamber marked by absenteeism, but on the strength of his career as the country's most acclaimed athlete.

So prized have name recognition and celebrity status become in winning Philippine elections that observers worry it's turning democracy into the preserve of the rich and well-connected.

Marcos is part and parcel of the phenomenon, according to Manila-based analyst Bob Herrera-Lim, who notes that his undistinguished career as a senator and congressman has been no barrier to his ambition for the presidency.

"[Marcos] is running on entitlement. He is running on the weaknesses of the system," Herrera-Lim said.

Sara Duterte poses for a selfie with city hall employees in Davao city, on the southern island of Mindanao.
Manman Dejeto / AFP via Getty Images
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Sara Duterte poses for a selfie with city hall employees in Davao city, on the southern island of Mindanao.

Marcos' vice presidential partner Sara Duterte is an accomplished politician, occupying the post her father held for decades as the mayor of Davao City, the third largest in the country. But the fact the 43-year-old First Daughter, whose work is little known outside Davao, led in a presidential opinion poll this past summer can only be put down to the power of a famous family name.

Revisionism, a PR campaign of distortion — and fond memories of the Marcos era

Bongbong Marcos is now making waves, rewriting the past and embellishing his family's legacy.

It's been 35 years since his father was ousted by a popular uprising, exiled, and exposed for rights abuses and kleptocracy.

Marcos Sr. is believed to have amassed up to $10 billion while in office, and now his son has been resuscitating the family's image with a sophisticated social media campaign.

Marcos Jr. narrates seamlessly scored videos that cast his parents, Ferdinand and Imelda, as generous philanthropists, and his father as a great innovator who made possible new strains of rice and united the archipelago with infrastructure heralded as the "Golden Age" of the Philippines.

Critics decry what they call the revisionist history and systematic airbrushing of the sins of the father's 20-year rule that turned the country into his personal fiefdom.

Marcos Sr. engaged in land-grabbing, bank-grabbing, and using dummies to hide acquisitions from public view, according to Professor Paul Hutchcroft of the Australian National University, who has written extensively on the political economy of the Philippines.

The late dictator dispensed special privileges to relatives, friends and cronies, writes Ronald Mendoza, dean of the School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, providing them access to the booty of the state, "even as the country failed to industrialize and was eventually plunged into debt and economic crises in the mid-1980s."

Activists wear masks with anti-Marcos slogans during a rally in front of the Supreme court in Manila in 2016 as they await the high court's decision on whether to allow the burial of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the "Cemetery of Heroes".
Ted Aljibe / AFP via Getty Images
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Activists wear masks with anti-Marcos slogans during a rally in front of the Supreme court in Manila in 2016 as they await the high court's decision on whether to allow the burial of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the "Cemetery of Heroes."

Yet, despite all of it, the Marcos family is not without its loyalists among both the elites and ordinary Filipinos.

At a small community market in central Manila, where fishmongers congregate amid aquariums and chopping blocks, vendors and shoppers talk about the Marcos era with a sense of nostalgia.

Chereelyn Dayondon, 49, says she likes how Marcos Sr. ran the country before and she wants that to come back. The single mother earns $80 a month directing traffic and worries that the cost of living is getting too high.

"It's not going to be enough," she says. "You never know, maybe Bongbong can change the Philippines. Let's try him out."

Meanwhile, fish seller Teodora Sibug-Nelval, 57, reminisces about the old Marcos era and memories of cheap food and law and order.

"I had a good life. I was able to send my sibling to school ... I was able to buy a house," she says.

In the pandemic, however, Sibug-Nelval lost her home and her vending stall. And now she wants her life back. She says she believes that if Marcos wins the election, "our lives will be better."

Herrera-Lim also says that many Filipinos see a confusing, chaotic political situation: "There is no clear delineations, political parties don't work for our benefit, we are looking for order."

And that, he says, is what Marcos is offering.

"Bongbong Marcos is saying that during his father's time, there was this order. There was peace in the country, which again, is a myth," he says.

The challenger to the dynasty

Leni Robredo is the current vice president of the Philippines and a liberal progressive.

A lawyer by training, Robredo co-authored an anti-dynasty bill when she served as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives.

In the Philippines, the vice president and president are elected separately and Robredo is on the opposite end of the political spectrum from President Duterte, with whom she has repeatedly sparred over human rights, the handling of the pandemic and Duterte's close ties with China.

Among the many candidates for president, including a former police chief, the mayor of Manila and Duterte's closest aide, Robredo appears to represent the greatest challenge to Bongbong Marcos.

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo gestures to a crowd of supporters in Manila on October 7, 2021, the day she filed her candidacy for the 2022 presidential race.
Jam Sta Rosa / AFP via Getty Images
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Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo gestures to a crowd of supporters in Manila on Oct. 7, 2021, the day she filed her candidacy for the 2022 presidential race.

Robredo defeated Marcos Jr. for vice president in 2016, and now she has pledged that if she wins the top office, she will recover the Marcos family's plundered riches.

Alluding to Marcos' perceived popularity, Robredo told a news conference last weekend that it was "sad that the people allow themselves to be fooled" into believing Marcos would save the country when the family's ill-gotten wealth "was the reason they are poor."

Yet Robredo may need more than tough rhetoric and moral rectitude.

Marites Vitug, the editor-at-large for the online news site Rappler, whose CEO won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said the country was witnessing the "rehabilitation of the Marcos dynasty." Young people were especially susceptible to the Marcos rebranding, she said, because there were no standard history textbooks in the Philippines that explained the Marcos martial law years.

"I was shocked to hear from some millennials that this was never discussed in class," she said.

Vitug said the odd teacher or professor may present it, but it was not systematic.

"It should have been required reading," she said.

Political economist Calixto Chikiamco adds that the revived Marcos family fortunes represent a counter-revolution to the one that ousted Marcos Sr. in 1986. That so-called Yellow Revolution was a model that Chikiamco says has failed to deliver genuine change.

"Because our politics remain dysfunctional, our economy is still not doing so well, a quarter of the workforce is unemployed ... still a large number of people go abroad to seek better opportunities. So it is a revolt against their present situation," he said.

"That's the reason the Marcoses are making a comeback."

The Duterte dynasty is a house divided

The campaign promises to be one of the Philippines' most bitterly fought contests in years, not least because the Marcos-Duterte tie-up has not won the blessing of Sara Duterte's father.

Rodrigo Duterte did make the controversial decision to allow the late dictator's remains to be moved to the "Cemetery of Heroes," a decision confirmed by the Supreme Court. But the once-friendly relations between Rodrigo Duterte and Bongbong Marcos have frayed, possibly beyond repair.

Duterte had wanted his daughter to seek the presidency, not play second fiddle, to provide him protection from the International Criminal Court investigating his violent anti-drug war. The probe has been suspended for a procedural review, but court watchers expect the case of alleged crimes against humanity to resume. Meanwhile, Chikiamco says while Sara may talk of continuing her father's policies, by declining to run for the top job, she has gone her own way.

"The daughter is fiercely independent and didn't want to be under the thumb of President Duterte. And also she could not perhaps tolerate the president's men," Chikiamco said.

A grandmother and her grandchild light a candle beside mock chalk figure representing an extra judicial killing victim during a prayer rally condemning the government's war on drugs in Manila in 2017.
Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images
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A grandmother and her grandchild light a candle beside mock chalk figure representing an extra judicial killing victim during a prayer rally condemning the government's war on drugs in Manila in 2017.

Herrera-Lim adds that daughter and father apparently "did not see eye to eye on many things related to the family or on the governance of Davao."

Fundamentally, though, Herrera-Lim says President Duterte doesn't trust Bongbong Marcos to shield him from ICC prosecutors.

"On these matters, family is very important," he said.

And even if there were such a bargain between the two men, Herrera says Duterte would worry it might not hold.

In what analysts regard as a means to protect himself, Duterte is making a bid for a seat in the Senate in the 2022 election.

One authoritative poll shows Marcos the early frontrunner to succeed him. But not, it seems, if President Duterte has anything to say about it.

He ignited a stir earlier this month by declaring in a televised address that an unnamed candidate for president uses cocaine.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
AFP / AFP via Getty Images
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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

Without identifying who, he said the offender was a "very weak leader" and that "he might win hands down."

Marcos took a drug test this past week, saying he was clean. Other candidates hurriedly lined up to clear their name.

Marcos is also under attack by groups eager to have him disqualified from running at all. The Commission on Elections is reviewing four separate petitions challenging his candidacy. At least one charges that Marcos misrepresented his eligibility to seek the presidency by stating he had no criminal conviction that would bar him from office. Petitioners argue that his 1995 conviction for failing to pay taxes for several years in the 1980s ends his bid for the presidency.

The Commission on Elections announced no ballots will be printed until the petitions are decided.

The campaign that officially begins in February is already generating drama enough for some to lament that the race for president is fast becoming a "political circus."

But Richard Heydarian says circuses are not always the worst thing. "Sometimes," he says, "they can produce a magical outcome. Let's see."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 15, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Aries Arugay was a professor at Philippine University. He is with the University of the Philippines Diliman. Also, Ateneo de Manila University was misspelled as Ateno de Manila University.