2022 PH Elections - In-depth

Marcos Jr. resurrects father’s symbols, or his strongman illusions might crumble

Ralf Rivas
Marcos Jr. resurrects father’s symbols, or his strongman illusions might crumble

Supporters of Presidential aspirant former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr start arriving at Philippine Arena in Buacan, for the Marcos-Duterte campaign kick-off on February 8, 2022. Martin San Diego Rappler

From the way he dresses, to the promises he makes, Marcos Jr. borrows from the late dictator. The reality is, the son is a fragile strongman.

MANILA, Philippines – While surveys, so far, have pointed to Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as the clear frontrunner in the 2022 presidential elections, it’s not actually him that Filipinos want.

Filipinos want the father, the dead dictator, for president. The son is but merely a vessel – worse, a bad carbon copy.

“Tapos na, may nanalo na, tapos ang laban! Buhay na buhay ang pagmamahal kay Apo Lakay Ferdinand Marcos!” said television personality Toni Gonzaga at Marcos Jr.’s proclamation rally earlier this week. (It’s done, we have a winner, the fight is over! The love for Ferdinand Marcos Sr. is alive!)

But Marcos Jr. has no war stories (most of the father’s tales are fake, by the way), no fancy degree to boast (the son had to fake one), and doesn’t have even half the eloquence of his father.

SUPPORTERS of Ferdinand Marcos Jr carry pictures of the late dictator during his proclamation event on February 8, 2022. Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

But the family’s supporters will vote for the son anyway. Why?

The son’s spectacular rise is a product of decades of image rehabilitation.

All the family, and the son’s cunning public relations team, have to do is to keep him cloaked in illusion until May 9. Failure to seal the cracks are clear opportunities for other candidates to exploit.

The extravagant matriarch, Imelda, will also have to take a backseat.

The imagined messiah

“The Marcoses are masters of selling a fantasy,” according to sociologist Jayeel Cornelio.

The family has dreamed of their return to power as early as when they were exiled in Hawaii in 1986.

A painting of Marcos Jr. depicted as a crowned prince riding a white horse, reclaiming what was lost, sums up the grand plan, according to Cornelio. The redemption arc also plays with Christianity’s core values.

“Many christians are drawn to Marcos not because they don’t see his lies. Many are drawn because they see that he is the one who will reclaim our greatness,” said Cornelio, who sits as director of Ateneo de Manila University’s development studies program.

“In a theological perspective, Christianity in the middle of it, it’s a mark of redemption. And it matters that he is the son of a dead father, a moment resurrection,” he added.

The Marcoses have also revived their image as a royal family, sans the outlandish paintings depicting themselves as such.

Cleve Arguelles, political analyst and lecturer at the De la Salle University, pointed out that the Marcos family getting up on stage in campaign rallies is a subtle nod to this imagined, royal image.

“So far, Marcos is the only one doing this with his family, the other candidates are not joined by family members on stage. A family portrait is always powerful,” Arguelles said.

FERDINAND ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. and running mate Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio kick-off their campaign at the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan, on February 8, 2022. Rappler

“The reverence for a royal family, all types of authoritarian leaders, is always a product of painstaking myth-making: Partly true, mostly propaganda,” Arguelles said.

The Marcos campaign has also highlighted the promise of better infrastructure.

While riddled with corruption that led to the economy’s decline, images of first world structures are too powerful, even opposition candidates have to play along with it.

“We know from surveys that people favor infrastructure – President Rodrigo Duterte’s build, build build. Isko Moreno and Leni Robredo are offering these promises too, but of course with modifications and the promise of transparency,” said political analyst and Ateneo instructor Arjan Aguirre.

Ultimately, infrastructure has been ascribed to Marcos Sr., and Duterte has successfully solidified these images in the Filipinos’ collective consciousness during his six years in power.

Marcos Jr.’s tweaks

While the symbols all point to the late dictator, images of Marcos Sr. are not featured at all in the campaign.

This is strategic, as Filipinos do remember the atrocities of the Marcos regime. But Pinoys are nonetheless drawn to the dead man’s tales.

Marcos Jr. usually dons a shirt jack, the signature attire of his father. 

PRESIDENTIAL INTERVIEW. Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. sits down with journalist Korina Sanchez as part of a series of presidential interviews. Screenshot from Rated Korina Youtube

The song “Bagong Lipunan” is played prominently in motorcades and sorties, putting the crowd in a trance.

But not all images and symbols of the past are carried over into the present.

Imelda Marcos has been absent, so far. 

For Aguirre, this is strategic as Imelda represents the side of the Marcoses Filipinos don’t want.

“She is a baggage. Filipinos are drawn to the Marcos legacy, but they don’t want all of it. Imelda will tie them (the Marcos family) back to all those issues. She will not contribute to the new, reinvented image of the Marcoses. She even has a standing warrant!” Aguirre said.

Who takes over Imelda’s place? Marcos Jr.’s wife, Liza Araneta-Marcos.

Aguirre said that Liza donning the Filipiniana during the proclamation rally completes the image of a patriotic family, while veering away from the opulence associated with Imelda.

Over on social media, their son Sandro shines by blurring the lines between politics and the mundane and is positioning himself as a charismatic successor.

THE Marcos family at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan on February 8, 2022. Rappler

Marcos Jr. is banking on his father’s symbols, but he is building an image of his own to somehow distinguish himself from the late dictator.

Sociologist Ash Presto of Ateneo said that Marcos Jr.’s use of the tiger as his symbol fits well with his running mate Sara’s Philippine eagle of Davao.

“This is the year of the tiger, so some may go as far as say that this is destiny. His defeat in 2016 is also given a new meaning because this year the stars have somewhat aligned and everything has a purpose,” Presto said.

“‘Marcos na, oras na (this is Marcos’ moment)’ makes sense and gives him purpose,” the sociologist added.

With the tiger and eagle uniting, an image of a “soaring” Philippines gives the tandem’s campaign a simple yet chilling image.

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The fragile strongman

While Marcos has envisioned himself as the next destined Philippine president, the images are prone to crumbling.

Mark Quintos, sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines, noted that Marcos Jr. has to continuously reinforce his narrative.

“If the characteristics of the tiger are strength, courage, and tenacity, then it is necessary for Bongbong – in support of this personality cult – to showcase these characteristics in public, lest the illusion breaks down,” he said.

Marcos Jr. is no extemporaneous speaker, likely leading his campaign team to carefully select which debate or interview to attend.

“Bongbong’s refusal to attend the debates is in direct contradiction to the symbolism that he is attempting to utilize. By refusing to attend the debates, his strength, his courage, and his tenacity are put in doubt. He loses the association with the tiger,” Quintos said.

“Marcos [Jr.] is the Achilles heel of his perfect campaign. If he just shows up and had the skill of speaking well, the presidency is his. But he’s not a good speaker,” Presto added.

But while Marcos Jr. is fragile, throwing vitriol and nasty memes at him will likely help the dictator’s son. Countering misinformation with facts in online discussions may also backfire.

Presto pointed to a recent incident on Facebook where a user made fun of Marcos’ attire – a symbol directly associated with Marcos Sr. – and likened it to that of a blue-collar worker.

The images were reclaimed by supporters and added more media milage for Marcos, as seen in this tweet below:

Meanwhile, Aguirre noted that “educating” those who believe the Marcos myths will sound “condescending.”

“It will hurt feelings, and voters choose mainly on emotions. To sway them to your side, you can’t sound like a know-it-all,” Aguirre said.

Unlike Duterte, the Marcos brand is tougher to sell.

“The strongman image of Duterte was an easy sell because a part of it was true. But for Marcos Jr., there’s no experience like that. The emperor is wearing nothing. It’s not as impenetrable as compared to the other strongmen, and that is my source of optimism because this could be uncovered,” Arguelles said.

Meanwhile, Cornelio noted that Marcos’ campaign team can skirt these issues by carefully choosing snippets of interviews.

“Who watches these debates in its entirety anyway? We don’t sit down as a family and say, ‘Let’s analyze the 10-point agenda of this candidate, then compare it with the other candidate.’ There’s no such thing,” Cornelio said.

Solidifying against democracy?

So what happens if the Marcoses are able to sustain their narrative long enough to bring them back in Malacañang?

Arguelles said that, historically, Philippine politics swings like a pendulum, from a reformist leader to an “authoritarian, decaying, traditional, feudal, politician.”

“If we have two consecutive administrations of one side of the pendulum, its a very bad development. This means that we’re no longer ambivalent and we’re solidifying against the side of democracy,” Arguelles said. “We are at the doorstep of a complete turn against the spirit of post-EDSA.”  Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.