In the past several months, Philippine Vice Presidential hopeful Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has faced a great deal of criticism for refusing to recognize and apologize for the acts of his father, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., who, in addition to committing numerous human rights abuses against Philippine citizens during his 20-year reign as dictator, amassed an estimated $10 billion in ill-gotten wealth for himself and his cronies. Although some assets were seized after the People Power Revolution ended the Marcos regime, the Marcoses and their cronies held on to a great deal of ill-gotten wealth. (Indeed, when the new government was installed, it created an entire agency, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), dedicated to recovering those assets.) In the eyes of many Filipinos, the Marcos name represents an era that saw billions stolen from the people, a fact illustrated by the PCGG’s recent decision to use a virtual exhibit of extravagant jewelry belonging to former first lady Imelda Marcos as an anticorruption campaign. Called the “Story of Extravagance,” it features a diamond tiara in platinum, a ruby tiara in silver, and numerous other jewels, along with descriptions of how the costs of each item could have been used to fund education, energy projects, and health initiatives.
The controversy over Bongbong’s refusal to apologize for this and other unsavory aspects of his father’s regime (including systematic human rights abuses) began last August, when the younger Marcos first asked what he should have to say sorry for, while highlighting the economic progress made during his father’s time in power. Since then, Bongbong has continued to insist that he has no need to apologize, even as criticism of his stance intensified in February, when the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of the People Power Revolution. The controversy has been further inflamed by revelations in the Panama Papers that Bongbong’s sister, Governor Imee Marcos, and her three sons were among those linked with offshore accounts. The Marcoses have so far issued no statement on the matter. In fact, not even a week after these revelations, Bongbong reiterated his stance that he has no reason to apologize for his family.
Others on this blog have discussed whether younger generations must take responsibility for the corrupt actions of their parents (see here for Courtney’s discussion of Peru’s Keiko Fujimori). In the case of Bongbong Marcos, and of the younger generation of Marcoses generally, the interesting and troubling reality is that their political careers will likely survive their outright refusal to acknowledge the corrupt acts of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. This frustrating truth speaks volumes about the culture of impunity that plagues Philippine politics, and has troubling implications for the broader anticorruption fight.
In assessing Bongbong’s comments, it’s important to understand the central role that family legacy plays in Philippine politics generally. I’ve touched on this issue in my post about Philippine political dynasties, but as a general matter, familial affiliations tend to have a stronger influence on voter decision-making than party loyalties or ideological stances. Candidates are often associated with the relatives who served in those offices before them, and the acts of those relatives are frequently imputed to subsequent generations, regardless of the qualifications of the actual candidates. It’s not uncommon, therefore, for the inexperienced children of politicians to emerge straight from college or even high school ready to serve as a mayor, governor, or member of congress. The effects of family legacy are also felt on the national scale—in the last presidential election, President Aquino experienced a huge surge in the polls following the death of his mother, Corazon Aquino, who served as the first female president in the immediate wake of the People Power Revolution, and who is widely regarded as a national hero.
Bongbong’s claim that his family’s actions are irrelevant to his own culpability, therefore, is disingenuous. Just like every other political candidate belonging to a political dynasty, his last name carries with it a great deal of significance for voters that cannot be separated from his personal success. Marcos loyalists are surprisingly numerous, particularly in Ilocos Norte, their home province, but also among the various cronies who have managed to stay in power even in the wake of the People Power Revolution. Bongbong himself seems to recognize this—despite claiming to distance himself from his father, Bongbong also defends his father’s legacy by pointing out advancements he made in educational, economic, and agricultural reform, even suggesting that some believed it to be a better time in the Philippines. The Marcoses return to power is troubling not because it happened in spite of Ferdinand Marcos’s corrupt legacy, but because it happened, to some degree, because of it.
Bongbong’s refusal to acknowledge or apologize for his family’s legacy is harmful from an anticorruption standpoint, as his approach promotes attitudes about politics and accountability that could perpetuate a culture of corruption. There are three main reasons we should be concerned about his stance:
- First, he is reinforcing a culture of impunity by refusing to take any responsibility for his family’s actions. In a system where a good family legacy can earn you political office, it’s likely that many voters will also associate the mistakes of older generations with younger politicians, at least until those mistakes have been addressed and can be forgiven. Bongbong’s argument is not that his political views are vastly different from the corrupt approach that drove his father’s regime. It seems that some ideological distancing is necessary to say that his family has earned back the country’s respect. But Bongbong has not asked for forgiveness—he merely feels entitled to a clean slate.
- Second, his stance, when viewed in light of the centrality of family legacy to Philippine politics, and in light of the ongoing legacy of corruption that accompanies his family name, is insulting to voters. The wounds inflicted during the Marcos administration are far from healed—the PCGG is still working to recover assets stolen during that era, and as the Panama Papers have shown, the children and grandchildren of Ferdinand Marcos have continued to benefit and amass wealth even since their initial fall from grace. Bongbong’s refusal to take any blame might seem, to an outsider, completely laughable in the face of so many blatant symbols of ongoing corruption. His commitment to this view could compound citizens’ frustration with the system, and perhaps create a sense of hopelessness and complacency among those who view these acts as unjust.
- Finally, by simultaneously distancing himself only from the negative actions related to his father and benefiting from his family legacy, he is sending a message that corruption can be tolerated or forgiven if a leader can bring about progress in some other form. Bongbong’s recent statements actually go beyond mere distancing—he actively points out the successes the country experienced during his father’s time in power. In doing so, he could be implying that the billions stolen are excusable because the country experienced economic growth.
Bongbong’s refusal to acknowledge the horrors of his father’s regime is inexcusable, and in a national campaign he risks sending a dangerous message to voters that corruption does indeed pay. While it may not be the case that every single candidate should be held accountable for the acts of their relatives, it must be so here, where the corrupt acts are so large, the memories are so fresh, and essentially no effort has been made to earn the people’s forgiveness.
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This is a fascinating, though frustrating, post. I think you are absolutely right that Bongbong’s refusals to apologize have greater societal harms than one standalone instance. Having such an unapologetic stance seems to leave no hope for a better, less corrupt future. At the same time, I wonder how the inertia of the political status quo–given the prevalence of political dynasties and the prominence of family ties as a source of political power–places Bongbong either as a unique player in the political arena or as another cog in the machine. Does the Marcos family’s prominent legacy mean that Bongbong has a special responsibility to distance himself from others’ acts and/or that he does more harm to entrenching a culture of impunity by refusing to do so? Or is Bongbong simply another younger-generation politician able to capitalize on family fame, however that fame may have come? My thought would be strongly with the former–that when your family has wielded outsized power and and done outsized harm, your responsibility to grapple with that history becomes more stark and the damage done by refusing to do so even worse. Perhaps as Imelda Marcos ages, there is a personal reason to avoid family troubles for the time being. Even so, as a major political candidate, that seems a paltry excuse.
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