Philippines election shows how personality politics is our collective future in this digital populist age

On 30 June, “Bongbong” Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of a former kleptocratic dictator who ruled the Philippines through martial law for nearly a decade (1972-1981), will assume the presidency of that country. He does so after having been elected in a democratic process — but in which information and history have been heavily distorted.

Politics is familial and personal in the Philippines, beginning with its very name. The country is named after King Philip II of Spain, under whose reign (from 1565) the territory was brought into Spanish control and its colonial settlements there grew, largely at the expense of the native population. The territory was a colony for 382 years, making it the country with the longest duration of colonisation. This colonial history would also include a five-decade stint by the US, which ran the country from 1898 after taking it over from Spain. (There is historical evidence that Spain effectively handed it to the US during the Spanish-American War so that it would be defeated by another white country instead of the native forces who were close to victory). Japan also occupied the country for three years during World War II, between 1941 and 1945.

In an interesting turn of events, when the most prominent opposition to the Marcos regime, senator Benigno Aquino Jr, was assassinated in 1983 his mantle was taken over by his family, who themselves eventually rose to state power. Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, would go on to be elected the president (1986-1992) after the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship. Her son, Benigno Aquino III, was later elected president in 2010. 

His successor, outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, came into office in 2016 in a populist wave that propelled the tough-talking, anti-drug mayor of Davao City, who led a controversial anti-drug crusade that resulted in the extrajudicial killings of tens of thousands. In the 2022 election, Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, (who also succeeded him to the Davao mayoralty when he became president) won the vice-presidency of the country. Her election shows that the family name carries a lot of weight in the country, and she may well be seen as a political heir for her father, who is unable to run because the Philippine Constitution bars more than one term for presidents. In November 2021, Rodrigo Duterte had announced his intention of running for vice-president himself before seemingly changing his mind. Sara Duterte’s ascension to the vice-presidency may also mean that he will be shielded from criminal investigation, especially over the murders that took place during his anti-drug crusade.

For South Africa, the election will mean very little. We can anticipate business as usual. The minor but growing trade relations, which have moved from R2-billion to R2.5-billion over the past six years (with a current R1.8-billion deficit for South Africa), are likely to go on regardless of who is in power in the southeast Asian country. But indirect implications may take shape through the Filipino-China-US formation. 

One of the key questions is whether the new president will continue the balanced approach towards the two nations that dominate his region, China and the US. There has been a tilting away from Washington and towards Beijing under Duterte, although he had begun warming up to the former in more recent years, partly to strike a balance (the US is still regarded favorably by the population, especially compared with China, which is seen as a bully by some in the country). Importantly, the Philippines and China have a shared dispute over the Spratly Islands in the waters of the Pacific Ocean that form part of a crucial trade route for goods moving between Africa, East Asia, and Southeast Asia by air and sea. Escalation of any sort seems far-fetched,but if it takes place it would probably be the result of tensions between Beijing and Washington rather than any decision made in Manila. 

But the election still matters for us and the rest of the democratic world in another subtler, although important, sense; the phenomenon of certain families dominating the political landscapes and destinies of their countries, is worldwide. Perhaps the best descriptive term for capturing it may come 11 000km away, in Canada (a country with whom Duterte’s government clashed in recent years). Canadian professors André Turcotte, Jon H Pammett, and Lawrence LeDuc coined a term that best describes this tendency in a book which bears it in the title: Dynasties and Interludes. The concept of non-royal dynasties — certain families permanently or intermittently running their countries in a manner akin to monarchy — is almost universal in occurrence. Around the world, many countries have been or are being governed by successive members of the same families. Many of these are democracies (in addition to Canada, we can also include Botswana, Ghana, India, Japan, Kenya, Singapore and the US among), others are not (Haiti, North Korea and Syria). Still others are somewhere in between (Bangladesh and Pakistan). In the upcoming Libyan election, many are looking to Saif Gaddafi, son of the late Muammar Gaddafi, as a prospective leader of the country.

Although it is true that individuals tend to follow the same career paths as their parents or other close relatives (1.7 to 2.7 times more likely according to one study), with politics the stakes are clearly high because of the implications for all of us. Perhaps one of the most glaring takeaways from the Philippines is that increased internet penetration does not mean access to useful or reliable information, and history can be scrubbed (especially when independent journalism is suppressed). The unfolding of events in the Philippines is a warning of how history can be washed over, especially in the age of digital media. During the campaign, many viral posts actively rewrote the narrative of the martial law period in the country and repainted it as a golden age of growth and stability that benefitted all Filipinos, not just the Marcos family. All societies are vulnerable to variations of these distortions. 

Social media companies, particularly Facebook, the most popular app in the Philippines, have a warped incentive to keep people active no matter how inaccurate the content being shared. In effect, they are complicit in rewriting whole histories. As shown by former Facebook data engineer Francis Haugen in her 2021 leaks, the company, which has since bizarrely renamed itself to Meta, intentionally benefits from online political polarisation because that is the sort of content that generates the most activity. An essential component of civic education is producing a sceptical electorate. Yet, as information becomes increasingly fast paced, social media have become tools for targeted campaigns for funnelling specific falsities to specific types of voters who are likely to resonate with them. But regulation of these platforms runs the risk of over-correction and silencing of dissenting voices. 

The answer lies in voter education. This places responsibility on my profession, political science, as well as other social sciences dealing with accurate representations of the past and present, to have an educational and research agenda that strives to be objective, nuanced and accessible. Above all, any viable democracy requires a shared set of facts among citizens so that they can make informed decisions. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Bhaso Ndzendze
Dr Bhaso Ndzendze is a senior lecturer in the University of Johannesburg. His latest book is Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in International Relations (World Scientific Press, 2021).

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