Author: Editorial Board, ANU
The last time a Marcos claimed victory in a Philippine presidential election, it was on the back of a victory so tainted by fraud it sparked a democratic revolution. Thirty-six years later, voters in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest democracy have delivered Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr to the presidential palace from which he fled along with his father into exile. Those who fought for democracy in the 1986 ‘people power’ revolution, and who fought to protect the achievements of the movement since then, are understandably shellshocked.
In our first lead article this week, Ronald Holmes writes that ‘Bongbong’s victory testifies to an effective rebranding of his persona’ that ‘glorified martial law and refuted narratives about [his] family’s ill-gotten wealth’. As Ferdinand Sr’s dictatorship recedes into history, many voters seem to have bought Ferdinand Jr’s line that it was a golden era of progress and stability.
Polls showed a pro-Marcos wave across the Philippines’ yawning social divides, with clear majorities of both rich and poor voters backing him. Bongbong will be the first post-‘people power’ president to win with an outright majority of votes, meaning that ‘he takes on the presidency with an unequivocal mandate that even outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte did not have’, says Holmes.
Indeed, the result is also a vote for extending the Duterte agenda. Voters overwhelmingly told pollsters that they wanted continuity. With Duterte’s estranged vice president Leni Robredo the only viable vehicle for change, and former ally and boxing champ Manny Pacquiao having fallen out with the president’s camp, Marcos was the default choice for Duterte supporters.
Contemporary grievances and partisan loyalties explain the result as much as historical memories. But there is nonetheless an immense symbolism in the return of the Marcos family to the presidency in the Philippines, one that chimes with a politics of nostalgia — or perhaps amnesia — that’s bubbling up in other parts of Southeast Asia.
As Francis Hutchinson writes in our second lead article this week, while ‘long characterised by “stability” and excessive concentration of power, Malaysia’s politics have become fluid and unpredictable’ in the aftermath of the defeat of Najib Razak’s government amid a massive corruption scandal in 2018, and the collapse of the reformist Pakatan Harapan government that replaced it. ‘Political institutions have since been in flux’, says Hutchinson, and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — in which former prime minister Najib remains influential — ‘is hell-bent on returning to what it sees as its rightful position at the apex of national power’.
As Hutchinson sees it, Malaysia’s ‘grand old party is selling its old formula — Malay dominance and traditional patronage politics’. Mounting hip pocket concerns and weariness of elite infighting are embedding a yearning among some voters for the stability and largesse of Najib’s leadership. The result is that the former prime minister, who’s appealing a conviction for corruption offences, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
In this there are echoes of the situation in Indonesia, where nostalgia for the Soeharto era — when corruption was kept out of sight, and policy mistakes were easier to paper over — is endemic though certainly not universal. That nostalgia has found an electoral outlet in the serial candidacies of Prabowo Subianto, who as a former army general defended his then-father in law’s regime to the bitter end, and who has appealed explicitly to disaffection with democracy. Prabowo remains a leading candidate in the upcoming race to succeed President Joko Widodo, who himself has subordinated human rights and institutional reform to stability and development.
A broad-brush analysis of these trends in Southeast Asia’s ‘big three’ electoral regimes suggests that the benign technocracy of a previous generation of leaders — exemplified by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Benigno Aquino III and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — is firmly out of fashion. In its place there is the growing prestige of what the sociologist Marco Garrido, writing about the Duterte-era Philippines, has called the ‘disciplinary state’, in which elected leaders honour the principle of electoral competition while ‘“disciplin[ing]” democracy by circumscribing its scope with respect to certain freedoms’.
In some ways this represents the rehabilitation of the Cold War-era bargain in which political freedom was foregone, or ostensibly delayed, for the sake of nation-building and economic growth. The difference now is that this ‘deal’ is not presented to a disenfranchised public as a fait accompli — it’s receiving endorsement at the ballot box and in opinion polls.
The principle of legitimation through free and fair elections has been entrenched. But it is increasingly decoupled from anti-corruption policy agendas (as voters shrug at the graft incidental to delivering the public goods they demand) and regard for the liberal rights that form the ‘soft tissue’ of democracy (as these instead come to be seen as vectors for the illegitimate influence of special interests).
By leaving institutional reforms unaddressed, this kind of politics contains the seeds of its own future crisis. In the Philippines, strengthening the central government’s capacity to deliver public goods, at the expense of local powerbrokers’ ability to direct state resources for their own political ends, is a critical development challenge. Indonesia’s endemic corruption is a major barrier to achieving the growth required to create jobs for the young people entering the workforce. And Malaysia will underachieve economically until it winds back the system of race-based affirmative action that politicians use as a conduit for clientelist politics.
In any case, Western leaders who have invested heavily in the rhetoric of democracy as a plank of the ‘rules-based order’ need to have a plan for dealing with the growing crop of leaders in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific, who don’t fit neatly into the categories of dictator or democrat.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.