The Duo Fighting to Preserve Dynastic Rule in the Philippines

The wedding ceremony held in November on a verdant farm in the Philippines was for the daughter of a senator. Most of the guests’ attention, though, was paid not to the bride and the groom but to another duo in attendance.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the country’s late dictator, escorted Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, past guests sitting in white trellis-backed chairs. Marcos wore a dark suit with a boutonniere pinned to his lapel, his face partially obscured by a mauve-colored mask. Duterte-Carpio sported a gray dress and clutched a bouquet of white flowers. They interlocked arms as they walked. Amid weeks of unrelenting speculation about their respective political futures, their stroll down the aisle, predictably, and likely by design, added to the hype. Was the event, attended by numerous members of the Philippine elite and closely watched for hints of the country’s political direction, one headline wondered, the “wedding of the century”?

The pair proved at least one of the rampant rumors true a few days later, when they announced that they would be running mates in the presidential election in May 2022. The decision has brought together two of the country’s most notorious political families at a moment when its democratic institutions seem particularly imperiled. Marcos is the presidential hopeful; Duterte-Carpio, the vice-presidential candidate. (In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately. This split-ticket voting allows for the president and vice president to come from different parties and have differing political views, as is currently the case.) The decision to team up was both deftly strategic and highly symbolic of the state of politics in the country.

The dominance of political dynasties in the Philippines has brought “adverse effects on the country including the perpetuation of poverty and underdevelopment, the propagation of political and socio-economic inequality and the prevalence of massive corruption,” the academics Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem and Eduardo C. Tadem wrote in a 2016 paper examining the phenomenon. Among the challengers to Marcos and Duterte-Carpio is the current vice president, Leni Robredo, who is running for president and previously defeated Marcos in the 2016 vice-presidential race. As a legislator, Robredo co-wrote an anti-dynasty bill, one of the numerous failed efforts to curb the rampant nepotism within the country’s political system, whose outcome Barry Gutierrez, her spokesperson, told me was unsurprising given the vested interests at stake.  

Robredo entered the presidential race late, and although she has seen some notable bursts of grassroots support, she has failed to gain wide support. Other challengers include Manny Pacquiao, the former boxing champion who parlayed his fame in the ring into a second act as a senator (Pacquiao recently picked up the endorsement of Floyd Mayweather Jr., the boxer who defeated him in a much-hyped but ultimately underwhelming 2015 bout), and Isko Morenoan, an actor turned mayor of Manila, the country’s capital. Marcos has a commanding lead in the race, according to two polls conducted in December. Duterte-Carpio is also the favorite for the vice presidency.

The Marcoses have a stronghold in the north, and the Dutertes’ power base is in the south, making the nepotistic duo immediate front-runners in the contest. The two are also looking to continue Philippine dynastic rule. This has been able to flourish, Aries Arugay, a political-science professor at the University of the Philippines at Diliman, told me, partly because of a weak party system and the lasting legacy of American colonialism, which put political power into the hands of a few select elites. In the absence of strong political parties, “the family has become the main reliable collective mechanism,” he said. This “ritualistic kinship,” though, extends beyond blood relations, Arugay explained. Other bonds, such as those forged through godparent relationships and calculated interfamily marriages, create a far-reaching web of incestuous connections. These overlapping fiefdoms help consolidate and control power. In some ways, he said, “it is like the medieval ages.”  

[Read: The paradox of Rodrigo Duterte]

Beginning when he was a toddler, Marcos Jr., better known as Bongbong, served as a political prop for his father, Ferdinand Marcos. A fierce anti-communist and gifted orator who was supported by the U.S., the elder Marcos was first elected president in 1965, but his rule swiftly descended into a kleptocratic dictatorship. He declared martial law in 1972 and, though it was formally lifted in 1981, most of the powers granted under it remained for the duration of his time in power, which ended when he was forced from office in 1986. During his time in power, extrajudicial killings and corruption proliferated. The Marcos regime was “exceptional for both the quantity and quality of its violence,” Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wrote in 1999. McCoy estimated that 3,257 extrajudicial killings were carried out under Marcos. The specter of violence was horrific and deliberate. Many of the victims were mutilated and then dumped roadside for passersby to see, McCoy wrote: “Marcos’s regime intimidated by random displays of its torture victims—becoming thereby a theater state of terror.”

Bongbong dropped out of Oxford University but used his family’s connections to secure a spot in the ultracompetitive M.B.A. program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, despite not having an undergraduate degree. (On the campaign trail, Marcos struggles to tell the truth about basic aspects of his life and has consistently lied about details as varied as his academic record and his age.) In 1980, when he was 22 and still studying in Philadelphia, he was elected vice governor of Ilocos Norte, a province in the northwest corner of the Philippines’ largest island. Marcos ran unopposed as a member of his father’s party. His uncle swore him into the position at the Philippine embassy in the U.S. After returning to the Philippines, Bongbong became governor of the province in 1983, when his aunt stepped down after more than a decade in power. “The Marcoses were a sultanistic family,” Arugay told me. “It was not simply a dictatorship of one; it was the dictatorship of a dynasty.”

His term was cut short three years later, when millions of Filipinos took part in protests known as the People Power Revolution. Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by the movement, triggered in part by the assassination of his political rival three years earlier. The U.S. Air Force dispatched numerous helicopters and airplanes to ferry the Marcos family and others to safety in Hawaii. Imelda Marcos, Ferdinand's wife, who elevated the hoarding and ostentatious display of ill-gotten riches to cartoonishly villainous levels, has said that she stuffed her kids' diapers with diamonds before departing. The Marcos clan was met at an airfield by the governor of Hawaii, an old friend, who greeted the authoritarian with traditional flower leis. Marcos Sr. lived in Hawaii, stricken with numerous health issues, until his death three years later. The family squirreled away a fortune estimated in 1987 to be $10 billion, hiding it in shell companies, fine art, and dodgy real-estate deals. The large majority of the money remains unaccounted for.  

Yet the Marcos family was allowed to return to the Philippines five years after they fled. Patricio Abinales, an Asian-studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told me that the government at the time was unstable and naively believed that rule of law would prevail and the Marcoses would soon face justice. But rather than facing repercussions for their crimes, the family set about rebuilding. “They are plunderers,” Arugay said of the clan. “Why are they not in jail right now?”

Bongbong was elected to the house of representatives in 1992, beginning a decades-long effort to attain the presidency and whitewash the Marcos family’s history while reestablishing its power. The results have been a resounding, frightening testament to the influence of historical revisionism in the absence of repercussions and accountability. “When people say the Marcoses are back, I often tell them, ‘Have they ever left power?,’” Arugay said.

Bongbong’s sister, Imlee, is now a senator. Previously, she too was the governor of Ilocos Norte. Between the siblings’ terms, their cousin served in the role. When Imlee left the governor’s seat to run for senate in 2019, her son was elected to replace her. Bongbong’s son, a loyal surrogate for his father much like Bongbong was to Ferdinand, is also running for congress. Bongbong had one of his few political setbacks in 2016, when his vice-presidential bid came up just short. His current campaign faces a host of petitions submitted to election officials that seek to have him barred from contesting the polls. Some have been filed by victims of his father’s regime. At least one is related to his failure to pay fines stemming from his 1995 tax-evasion conviction, which was upheld in 1997. The Marcos camp has characteristically brushed off the challenges.

[Read: The limits of Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-Americanism]

Compared with the Marcoses, the Dutertes are relative upstarts in the world of political dynasties; this explains in part why Duterte-Carpio has hitched herself to Bongbong. The family broke through to national office only in 2016, in the most uproarious fashion. That year, Rodrigo Duterte, the motorcycle-riding, foul-mouthed mayor who drew frequent, if not totally accurate, comparisons to Donald Trump, was elected president. Duterte-Carpio is the mayor of Davao, a position her father held for more than two decades. Her younger brother currently serves as the vice mayor of the city, a position their older brother held until he won a seat in congress in 2019.

Rodrigo Duterte is mercurial and prone to erratic outbursts. His administration has overseen a steady decline in press freedom and the killing of scores of activists in raids by security forces (many of whom had been “red-tagged,” i.e., accused of being communist guerrillas or supporting them). At least 61 lawyers have been killed during Duterte’s time in office, according to figures collected by the Philippine news site Rappler. (The site’s co-founder Maria Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Duterte’s government tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent her from attending the ceremony in Norway.) The United Nations conservatively estimates that security forces carrying out Duterte’s years-long “war on drugs,” a sweeping campaign that has targeted primarily the urban poor, have killed more than 8,600 people. Others peg the figure as considerably higher.   

The International Criminal Court announced in September that it was opening an investigation into the campaign, describing it as “a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population.” Duterte reacted, as he often does, angrily and rashly, unilaterally withdrawing from the court and rebuking his country’s Supreme Court when its judges advised him to cooperate with the investigation. Constrained by a strict presidential-term limit, Duterte announced a bid for the senate last month, but it was a short-lived experiment. In mid-December, he abruptly withdrew.  

Gutierrez, the Robredo campaign’s spokesperson, told me that Robredo had been pulled into the contest in large part because she was fearful about the country’s direction. A staunch critic of Rodrigo Duterte, “she really felt very strongly that over the course of the last five and a half years, a lot of our institutions have been eroded,” he said. With the alliance of the Marcoses and Dutertes, “the danger of that continuing or worsening,” he said, “is very real.”

When I asked Arugay, the political-science professor, about his projection for the race, he was not optimistic. “I want to be an idealist. I want to be on the good side, on democracy’s side, and say that Marcos and Duterte-Carpio will have a tough battle, but that defeats all my training in political science,” he told me. Some pundits, he said, have predicted that the “unholy alliance” will fail, that “they are both greedy, both corrupt, and bad people don’t get rewarded in the end,” he said.

“I wish that was how the world worked,” he said. “I really do.”