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The Philippine election is the latest example of illiberalism’s popularity

The landslide victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the country’s longtime dictator, has exposed one of liberal democracy’s greatest vulnerabilities.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. waves a Philippine flag during his last campaign rally before the election on May 7 in Parañaque, Philippines.
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Last week, voters in the Philippines went to the polls — and, by an overwhelming margin, chose the son of the country’s deposed dictator as their next president.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., widely referred to by his nickname, Bongbong, ran on a ticket with Vice President-elect Sara Duterte — the daughter of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist most famous for his policy of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers, who pushed the Philippines toward authoritarianism during his six years in office. Neither of these candidates ran away from their parents: on the contrary, they embraced them. And voters in the Philippines rewarded them for it.

Opponents and observers have raised questions about the legitimacy of the election, pointing to a climate of pervasive disinformation, reports of malfunctioning ballot-counting machines, and alleged voter fraud. But on Friday, Leni Robredo, the outgoing vice president and leading rival of Marcos, admitted defeat and urged her supporters “to accept the majority’s decision.”

That majority seemed to ratify a proudly illiberal governing ethos. During his presidency, the elder Duterte — who was prevented by term limits from running again — jailed political opponents, cracked down on press freedom, and built an online disinformation machine that buoyed the Marcos-Duterte ticket. And yet, at the same time, close observers of the Philippines say the strongman political style was authentically popular.

President Duterte has the highest approval ratings of any president in modern Philippine history, with his low points in the polls rivaling other presidents’ highs. That he proudly violated individual rights and attacked the separation of powers was not a turnoff, but a draw. Marcos’s overwhelming victory underscored the point.

“Duterte is the first president who represented an alternative vision for the direction of the country. Marcos is a continuation of that vision — and wants to make that known,” says Dean Dulay, a political scientist at Singapore Management University who studies democracy in the Philippines.

It’s not that Filipino voters rejected democracy, exactly: survey data still shows strong support for holding competitive elections. Rather, it’s that they are rejecting liberalism: seeing constraints on power, including fundamental rights against being murdered by one’s own government, as impediments to their leaders’ ability to bring about a better Philippines.

Marcos’s victory on these terms is part of a worldwide illiberal turn. The past decade of global politics has shown that the Philippines is not the only country where strongman politics appeal to a large constituency; what its recent election shows is that this political style can be not only popular but durable. The liberal ability to address this reality is proving to be one of the defining political issues of the 21st century.

How Duterte and Marcos rode illiberalism to victory

On many issues, including vital ones like the Philippines’ relationship to the US and China, it’s not very clear what a Marcos presidency will be like. His campaign was extremely light on policy, offering little in the way of concrete solutions to ordinary Filipinos’ problems.

What he did do, however, is link himself to two strongmen: his father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and his predecessor, Duterte. The tactic succeeded, thanks in large part to the recent history of democracy in the Philippines — and Duterte’s ability to create an alternative to it.

In a 2021 article titled “The ground for the illiberal turn in the Philippines,” University of Chicago sociologist Marco Garrido argues that the experience of democratic politics after the 1986 revolution against Marcos Sr. failed to live up to voters’ expectations. Filipino politics had long been dominated by a coterie of wealthy and corrupt families; neither elections nor popular protest movements seemed capable of enacting fundamental social reform.

“This string of failures has led many Filipinos to turn away from the promise of liberal democracy and reject people power as a means of achieving it,” Garrido writes.

In the 2016 election, Duterte offered a clear break, despite being the scion of an influential regional political family.

As mayor of Davao City, a city in the southern Mindanao province roughly the size of Dallas, he pioneered a brutal tough-on-crime policy involving extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals (a policy that earned him the nickname “The Punisher”). A magnetic public presence with a tendency for outrageous statements — he has bragged about extramarital affairs and, on separate occasions, referred to both President Barack Obama and Pope Francis as a “son of a whore” — he sold himself as a plain-spoken alternative to the political status quo. In a tightly contested election with several candidates, he won a plurality of the vote.

In office, Duterte took a wrecking ball to the Philippines’ liberal-democratic institutions. The centerpiece of his administration was a “war on drugs” that adapted his Punisher approach nationwide, in which police and vigilante forces slaughter suspected drug dealers and users in the streets — killing between 6,000 and 30,000 people.

This willingness to flout the rules extended to other basic liberal democratic rights. Since 2017, the Duterte government has imprisoned senator Leila de Lima — an outspoken critic of the government — on flimsy drug charges. In 2018, he hounded the chief justice of the Supreme Court and ultimately forced her out of office. In 2020, his government imprisoned leading journalist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Maria Ressa on “cyberlibel” charges and revoked leading independent TV broadcaster ABS-CBN’s broadcasting license.

Garrido terms this form of government a “disciplinary state.” The experience of democracy has taught many Filipinos, particularly the upper and middle class voters that form Duterte’s base, he writes, to see “the democratic state as a source of disorder: as corrupt, pliant (vulnerable to depredation by powerful actors), and ‘populist’ (catering primarily to the lower class).” In a disciplinary state, by contrast, “a strong leader steps in and imposes order by strictly enforcing valued rules ... their willingness to overreach traditional bounds is a large part of their appeal.”

In his research, Garrido found that Filipinos held these views alongside support for formal democratic institutions like elections. Instead of moving to outright dictatorship, they wanted “to ‘discipline’ democracy by circumscribing its scope with respect to certain freedoms, particularly due process and the right to vote.”

Garrido sees this attitude at work in Filipino attitudes on Duterte’s drug war. Though many Filipinos expressed some worry about the consequences of the policy, his data show that the policy remained consistently popular throughout Duterte’s time in office — reflecting the idea that it’s okay to break some rules and take some dangerous actions in pursuit of establishing order.

Marco Garrido

Duterte’s approval ratings tell a similar story. He has been consistently popular, outstripping every other president since the fall of Marcos Sr. In October 2020, Duterte’s approval rating reached a staggering 92 percent in one survey — the highest recorded at the time for any leader on the planet.

Marco Garrido

An important explanation for these numbers, according to Garrido, is both simple and dark: illiberalism has proven to be popular.

“The data suggest that Filipinos are willing to put up with extrajudicial killings, political repression, and the gutting of liberal institutions because they see Duterte as a strong leader. They question his methods but not their effectiveness,” he writes. “While there remains significant opposition to Duterte’s strongman tactics, it would seem that in general Filipinos are developing a taste for illiberal rule.”

Marcos Jr. doesn’t have Duterte’s personal charisma. What he does have is a strong support base in the country’s north due to his family’s patronage network and an ability to link himself to both the past six years of governance in the Philippines and an earlier period of strongman rule.

Though his father’s dictatorship was famously brutal and corrupt, the Marcos campaign projected a vision of the ancien regime as a golden era: a time of domestic peace, low crime, and shared prosperity. By running with Sara Duterte, he was able to sell himself both as a continuation of the Duterte model and an avatar of “make the Philippines great again”-style nostalgia politics.

Social media disinformation about the actual history of the Marcos regime did play a significant role in spreading this message, though perhaps not in the way one would think. Dulay, the Singapore-based researcher, examined the data on Filipino views of the Marcos era and found that surprisingly few voters literally believed the lies Marcos Jr. and his boosters on YouTube and TikTok were selling. Instead, Dulay argues, the propaganda tapped into a general feeling that the Philippines had gone astray in the democratic era — and that the Marcos-Duterte model represented something different and better.

“What [the videos] actually evoke is a kind of emotional response — ‘this is how it used to be, look at our country now,’” he says. “It’s not purely about information itself, but the way that it’s conveyed: so much of it is the music, the feel of the video.”

It is this gut feeling that the system wasn’t working that Duterte picked up back in 2016 — and that Marcos rode to victory in 2022.

It’s not just the Philippines

The story of the Duterte-Marcos ascendancy is not a unique one: In broad strokes, backlash against a political system seen as corrupt and out of touch has empowered right-wing populists all over the world.

In 2010, Viktor Orbán won an overwhelming victory in Hungary against an incumbent socialist government mired in scandal. In 2014, India’s Narendra Modi defeated Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that dominated Indian politics since independence. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity played a significant role in Donald Trump’s shock victory. And in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency amid a massive corruption investigation that implicated large swaths of the Brazilian elite.

These successful demagogues differ in many ways. But they all possess an ability to tap into public discontent with the status quo.

Their campaign messages varied by local circumstance, but all put forward a vision of re-establishing public order and social hierarchy. They alleged that the liberal elite was too soft on some subversive element of society — be it criminals, immigrants, Muslims, or the LGBTQ community — that was rotting society from within, and they promised to come in and clean house.

One temptation, common among American liberals in particular, is to dismiss this message’s popularity as some kind of trick played on voters: the result of disinformation or a lack of political knowledge. But this is too simple a reading. Yes, lies and voter misperceptions have figured into the ascent of right-wing demagogues — but there is also a genuine constituency for their illiberal message.

A useful close look at this dynamic comes out of Israel, also home to a resurgent illiberal right. In 2016, the Israeli sociologist Nissim Mizrachi published a study on the failure of his country’s left-wing parties to gain support among the socially marginalized Mizrahi Jewish community (Jews of Middle Eastern descent). His interviews, both with left-wing activists and Mizrahi voters, convinced him that there is a gulf in fundamental moral vocabulary: The Israeli left has proven incapable of understanding that the Mizrahi voters do not share their philosophically liberal premises.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines during a 2018 meeting.
Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images

Mizrahim, despite their inferior social and economic position relative to the Ashkenazim (European Jews), were not swayed by appeals to inclusive social policy or an expanded welfare state. Instead, Mizrachi finds, they express a vision that places obligations to the particularity of the Jewish people and Israeli citizens first. They disliked the left’s “sweeping — and thus threatening — disruption of the boundaries of the Jewish collectivity in favor of universalistic solidarity.”

The left’s conceptual toolbox, including its deep and correct belief that Palestinians are owed political rights by dint of their humanity, left it poorly equipped to understand what these voters believed. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who evolved into a more Trump-like illiberal demagogue during his historically long time in office, exploited this moral gulf to hold power: positioning himself as a champion of this alternative moral vision against the once-dominant left-liberal establishment.

Mizrachi’s diagnosis of the Israeli situation is worth taking seriously as a global matter. It is increasingly clear that there are large swaths of voters across democratic polities for whom liberal values are not fundamental, who see liberalism’s champions in the political elite as out of touch or worse.

The challenge for liberals today is to hold two ideas in their heads at once: that far-right leaders are not only illiberal but a threat to democracy, and that there is a significant democratic constituency that finds their illiberalism not only tolerable but actively appealing. This is the lesson of the 2022 Philippine election and of other recent elections — one that liberals ignore at their peril.

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